Many years ago when I was a new Speech-Language Pathologist, I was always in awe of seasoned therapists who could easily make any toy a therapy tool. I would spend hours every weekend planning all my activities, making materials, and buying toys. It was a lot of work in addition to my already busy work week ahead! Then after all of that time and effort, half the time the kids didn’t want to do my perfectly orchestrated activity! Can you believe it? When the child ditched my plan and wanted to do something else, I was lost. Don’t get me wrong, I was good at playing and “following the child’s lead” to work on basic communication skills, but doing this with certain goals was challenging. If you work with children, you can probably relate to this. If you are in the early stages of your career, it might feel like it will never get easier to hit all of your targets in your session when nothing goes to plan! But it gets a lot easier over time. Pretty soon, you can walk into any room with any (or no) materials and have an amazing session!
One thing I see under-utilized with children are puppets. In my opinion, they should be one of the main staples in your practice. They don’t require hours of planning, many children love them (even the challenging ones!), and you can target just about any treatment goal with them. It just takes a bit of work and planning upfront and then you’re set for many hours of puppet time! I recommend setting up a Puppet Kit. Get a clear bin with a lid. Then do the following:
- Purchase puppets with names including 2-3 early developing phonemes (sounds).
- Add play food items and common objects with names including early developing sounds with only 2-3 phonemes (sounds).
- Be prepared (specific and measurable goals, noninvasive tracking system)
Names with 2-3 Early Developing Phonemes (Sounds)
It is highly likely that you have some puppets where you work or in your own bag of tricks. However, I have rarely seen therapists utilize puppets regularly or to their full potential. I think people look at them and think, “what am I going to do with a puppet?” It may seem like a lot of kids with speech, language, and social-communication deficits aren’t going to be sitting for a puppet show. This is why it can’t just be a bunch of puppets thrown in a bin or a puppet “stage.” Those are cute and everything but it’s not an optimal setup for kids who need intensive speech and language intervention. It is important to be thoughtful about which puppets go in the bin. Some considerations are vocabulary, typical speech development, and size.
Your Puppet Kit should have 3-5 puppets with common animals or motivating characters with names with early developing sounds such as /m/, /b/, /p/, /n/, /t/, /d/, /g/, /k/ in simple consonant/vowel combinations, like CVC or CV. Avoid names with sound blends with r and l. Focus on the ones that include the consonants the child can already say at an appropriate speech developmental level. For example, if you are working on shaping up words and the child can imitate /b/ and /t/ in isolation, start with the “bat” puppet as opposed to a “snake” or “giraffe.” If the child has a speech disorder, he/she will experience success quicker and be more likely to stay engaged and talk to you! In the event that a child is really motivated by a certain animal or character, set the expectation at a developmentally appropriate level. For example, if the child loves the “bear,” consider it a correct response if they leave off the “r.” If a child is just learning to talk, that is the least of your worries!
Finger puppets are nice because they are small, fun to hide, and you can throw one in your pocket if you need to leave the kit and move to another room. Hand puppets are nice for “eating” things and spitting them out. So it’s good to have a mix of the two. Some good CV and CVC ones are bee, bear, bat, bug, duck, dog, cat, and cow.
Play Food Items and Common Objects with 2-3 Early Developing Phonemes (Sounds)
The same rules apply to the objects in the kit. They should be common words with names with early developing sounds such as /m/, /b/, /p/, /n/, /t/, /d/, /g/, /k/ in simple consonant/vowel combinations, like CVC or CV. Avoid names with sound blends with r and l. Focus on the ones that include the consonants the child can already say at an appropriate speech developmental level. I like to use play food items such as: cake, egg, peas, apple, banana (nana). Some common objects to add are ball, bed, book, comb, car, key, bus, and boat. It’s good to have several examples of each item for generalization and to make sure to get as many practice opportunities as possible.
Over the course of my career, I developed the ability to go with the flow based on a child’s interest, rather than trying to adhere to my plan. This is an important skill. However, before you pull out the Puppet Kit, you should always have a specific/measurable goal in mind. Once the play starts to flow, it has to have some structure to be effective. You can still work on things that are (or not) not written specifically in your treatment plan, but be prepared to have a goal that you will be measuring. Don’t try to measure too many things either. For example, you might have a goal for requesting (manding) and you might also have goals for shaping CVC words or labeling animals. Pick one or two to focus on with the puppets and work on the other goals in a different activity that session. Last, but not least, be ready to track correct responses without interrupting the flow of the activity. I like electronic finger tally counters because they are small and can fit easily on your finger, retractable reel, or keychain.
I hope this was helpful! Email me anytime to ask questions or share your puppet story firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, subscribe to my email list below to make sure you don’t miss my blog posts or announcements with the Sounds to Speech tools and training coming up!
Don’t forget to check out my website for cute, eco-friendly finger puppets and therapy accessories to start your Puppet Kit!