When you think about the muscles used for speech, what comes to mind? Probably the mouth, tongue, and lips. But there are actually way more muscles needed to create your child’s first sounds and words.
The mouth, tongue, and throat work together with your child’s trunk muscles, diaphragm, and lungs to produce babbling noises, and eventually those first sweet words. And as they learn more speech, their brain is whirring as they decide what to say, how to say it, and who to say it to.
When you think about all that goes into a word, it makes those first babbles from your baby seem even more amazing! Their little bodies are working so hard to coordinate all these muscles to speak. And every word that follows is another magnificent feat in their development!
Like movement, language production is a skill that they build over time. It needs to be worked on to reach peak performance. And it takes time and dedication to improve.
The connection between play, movement, and speech
A child's primary form of learning, especially in their early years, is through play. Your child’s growth and development require high-quality, unstructured playtime.
As your child plays, they
- build their muscles
- practice breath control
- make important connections between their brain and their body
When a child is provided with opportunities for play, it wakes up their mind and body. Play helps them become more aware of where they are in space while also strengthening their muscles.
Although it may not be obvious, movement is an important component of language development. It contributes to both receptive language skills, or an understanding of what words mean when people say them, and the actual verbalization of words.
Have you ever noticed that your child gets super talkative after you swing them, twirl them, or jump around with them for a bit? All of these movements bring their arousal level up, helping them create more sounds, vocalizations, and even words.
Body movement and language on the surface don’t seem like they’d work together. But movement improves a child’s gross motor skills, increases their body awareness, and builds their brain-body connection. In turn, each of these skills promotes language development.
You might be thinking, “I don’t see the connection.” Let’s dive deeper into each area to better understand how it contributes to language development.
Language and motor skills
We all remember those first few sounds our baby made. Whether it was gaga, mama, or babababababa, it was a special moment of connection between you and your baby.
Though it may sound odd, even those very first, simple sounds require strong motor skills. Most babies begin to babble with recognizable and consistent sounds around 6 or 7 months old. At this point, many babies have developed the gross motor skills needed to roll and sit up. Their core muscles have practiced these big gross motor skills and now are strong enough to support the breath control and lung capacity needed for speech.
And as they grow, and learn to crawl and then walk, these core muscles continue to strengthen along with the muscles in their jaw and mouth. Sometime around 12 months, all this hard work culminates in their first word.
Of course, development doesn’t stop there! Children learn to jump and put together multiple words into phrases. They learn to climb and string together a whole sentence. They learn to skip and tell you a whole story.
Every activity or movement that encourages the improvement of motor skills also builds muscles that allow for more complex forms of language expression.
The link between body awareness and speech
One of the scariest parts of bringing home a newborn is always remembering to support their head. That brand new baby doesn’t have the muscles or awareness to hold their head up and keep themselves safe. These muscles develop over time with practice.
The system in our bodies that provides information on motion, head position, and spatial orientation is the vestibular system. This system helps us keep our balance, control our body through various movements, and maintain our posture. Developing your vestibular system increases body awareness.
As your baby learns to shift their weight and head to roll over, they’re learning body awareness. As your toddler trips over their feet as they run, then pops back up and tries again, they’re learning body awareness. As your preschooler carefully tiptoes across a log at the playground, they’re learning body awareness.
Body awareness plays an important role in getting our body ‘ready’ for the day. It impacts our arousal level, focus and attention, and balance — all of which impact our ability to produce sounds and words. And we need to have an awareness of our body to use all the muscles required for speech.
Additionally, the vestibular system is very closely tied to auditory processing. These two systems work together to hear sounds and then determine both where they came from and what they mean. So when your child works on one skill, like walking on a balance beam, they can simultaneously be working on other skills, like listening to directions.
Movement builds the brain-body connection
As your child builds body awareness, it’s easier to understand how their body takes up space in the world. And as their brain grows in understanding and vocabulary, they’re able to put words to these experiences.
For example, your preschooler may say, “Look, mommy! I’m under the slide!” It seems like a simple observation to you, but it’s actually a great mental accomplishment. They have just successfully labeled where their body is in relation to something else. Yay!
The first spatial words children typically use include “up”, “down”, “over”, and “under”. Being able to connect their bodies to these words is a big deal. And because these words are more personal and connected to their movement, they resonate better.
The brain-body connection can also be seen when certain movements are used to “wake up” the brain, getting it ready to learn. An occupational therapist will often use this connection to create special motion therapies that can help work on language skills.
Seeking out extra help
If you feel your child is behind in their language skills, don’t panic. Kids all develop at different rates. Bring up your concern with your child’s pediatrician and they can advise you if additional services are needed — such as speech or occupational therapy.
Parenting is a difficult task, and it’s hard not to worry. Oftentimes, there are challenges and struggles that we’re simply not equipped to handle.
And that’s okay. There are professionals out there who can step in to help. Reach out to them and ease your worries while getting your child the extra help they need.
Tips for adding movement opportunities into your home
Unfortunately, not everyone is able to get outside to run, jump, and play on a wonderful playground. Some days the rain keeps you inside or the park is just too far away.
But there are some great, indoor options to get your child both moving and working on their language skills.
- Wooden rockers provide a fun, repetitive motion your child’s brain craves. Use them to gently rock your younger child, or give your toddler the opportunity to quickly rock themselves with exciting starts and stops.
- Climbers, especially climbing triangles, require a lot of body awareness. As your child carefully climbs up and balances at the top before turning themselves around, they’re working on a variety of gross motor skills and strengthening their vestibular system.
- Slides are a playground favorite for a reason! The quick descent sends adrenaline pumping through your child's veins. While it’s not quite the same as a 7-foot twirling slide, an indoor ramp can provide much of the same stimuli. Many options even double as a climber to practice scaling their imaginary mountains.
Pair these play structures together, and your child has an engaging place to play that sparks their imagination, challenges their muscles, and boosts their language skills.
By simply setting the stage for enriching play experiences, you’re laying the foundation for healthy speech and body development. You’re doing a great job!
This article was written in collaboration with our resident Occupational Therapist Jessica Ahdout — Portal MA OTR/L. Have a question for our OTs? Let us know in the comments!