I hear a knock at the door and I start to rehearse what I am going to say when I open it.
“His socks JUST disappeared. Shirt is all soiled. The pants have travelled to space,” I want to tell Gramma (my mother) as she greets me at the door with a look of worry and mere disappointment. I have run out of excuses for why I like to have my son play half naked in the middle of the day. It’s not only because it is absolutely adorable, usually warm, and just easier sometimes, but there is more to it. I believe it’s important for him to find and feel his body in space, to feel and experience textures, temperatures, and learn what his body parts are all about. I want him to UNDERSTAND the world….to COMPREHEND what he needs to comprehend in order to communicate his most basic needs, thoughts, and ideas. And yes, this involves a lot of half naked play.
Important for development, communication, and cognitive growth is sensory play. Areas of the brain that involve touch, smell, taste, sight, and sound are crucial to nurture during everyday activities. I often see children with major or minor sensory deficits such as gagging at the sight of a banana for it’s slimy texture, or refusing to touch a scaly crocodile toy. When I work with parents and children I always promote early exposure and desensitization of textures and consistencies. I also TALK about, DESCRIBE, and EXPLAIN what is happening, consciously using verbs, nouns, and adjectives, while the child is engaging in a sensory driven activity. The more you do this, the more they become AWARE. Awareness, another important cognitive skill, is the foundation for developing language comprehension skills. If your child can differentiate his knee from his ankle, when you ask him about the “boo-boo”, then he can tell you exactly where he might be hurting. He can tell you about his earache, or how he may be hungry….the list goes on. In order for your child to able to do this, there needs to be a level of comprehension in place. The more you talk about WHAT is happening, and WHEN it is happening, the stronger their comprehension skills become.
Often times when I am coaching parents, they ask me, “What do I talk about?” I tell them about the five senses. Whether your child is at the zoo or playing half naked in the kitchen, you can always talk about what they are seeing, hearing, touching, feeling, smelling, and tasting. This sums up their entire experience and provides them with the building blocks for language expression and comprehension skills.
Allow your child to touch what they are reaching for, looking at, or whatever mommy might be handling at the moment. Let them safely explore, for example, gentle and rough textures so they can problem solve (a cognitive skill) and decide whether or not something is preferable/safe/hot/cold, etc… Your child will go from being stationary and not touching much, to crawling, walking and touching almost everything in sight. This can be scary sometimes. However, find it in yourself to safely allow them to experiment with their sense of touch to stimulate their cognitive skills, and to soon be able to tell you WHAT they want to touch.
Talk to your child about smell. This is a sense we usually forget to talk about, we introduce sometime later, or one that the child just simply discovers on their own. Take control and have your little one smell unusual and more common items - good smells and bad ones. I like to communicate about YUCKY vs. YUMMY smells, using nonverbal facial expressions and words to describe the smell--toddlers have FUN with this.
Tasting the sweet AND the bitter, among other flavors, helps your baby develop preferences and become aware of their taste buds. Not only is it great introducing foods and textures that you love, but also introduce ones that you don’t normally eat or don’t like. Your baby might love it! TALK about the specific taste your child is experiencing. For example: “SALTY cracker!”
What does your child see? What do they not see? TALK about both. If you’re playing indoor or outdoor, there is plenty to talk about. Point out what you see near or far and use your finger to POINT. Pointing is an important skill and is a form of communication; help your child point to what they see in the world, in books, up in the sky, or under the bed! Talk about things your see in the dark and things you see when the lights turn on!
Loud sounds. Soft sounds. A whispering sound. These are all fun to enact. Be goofy with your child and imitate the loud lion or the soft purr of the cat. Teach your child how to whisper in your ear. Being able to understand how to use an inside voice versus an outside voice is key for social language. How does your child use an excited voice? Do they understand a stern voice? Can they tolerate various noises? Expose your child to the loud coffee grinder and the roaring vaccum, and also the quiet humming of the fan or the constant ticking of the clock.
So….. my son plays without his shirt, socks, or pants….SO WHAT!? He’s essentially learning that his feet are TOUCHING the cold tile, he might be SMELLING his dirty diaper, TASTING the leftover puffs stuck to his big toe, SEE’s his cute little belly button usually covered by his long shirt, and HEARS his stomach slide on the tile as he sways his body back and forth, back and forth, back and forth to the sound of the music in the background!
Let your baby play and explore freely. You’re doing them a favor. Without a shirt. Forget the socks. Leave the pants behind!
Nahal A. Papehn MS, CCC-SLP