Expanding Language Through Bubble Play

Contributed by Randi A. Fried, M.A., CCC-SLP, Speech-Language Pathologist
in Metro Detroit and a mom of a child on the Autism Spectrum 

It’s warming up in Michigan, so it’s finally time to get outside and play.  It is so important for kids to get outside and into nature.  Especially now, when outings are limited.  I’m looking forward to lots of outdoor play this year.  I have three kids that range in age from 6-14 so finding an activity that makes everyone happy isn’t always easy, but I know every time I take bubbles out I will have a winner. 

You may wonder why this simple toy holds a number one spot with me.  Well, I’m here to tell you.  First and foremost bubbles make kids smile, let’s be honest bubbles are mesmerizing for kids and adults alike. On a playdate, bubbles provide the perfect icebreaker and an immediate game to play together.  It’s also possible to play bubbles at a safe distance.   You and your neighbor can take turns blowing your own bubbles from your driveways. 

Second, bubbles provide a wide range of language using opportunities during play.  Bubbles can be a communicative temptation, something that allows a child to think, act, or react naturally to the situation.  Communication temptations can motivate a child with autism to initiate communication, talk, or increase his utterance length.  For example, you can open a container of bubbles, blow some for the child, and then close the container tightly.  The child wanting more bubbles will need to communicate with the adult to get them. This could be in the form of a gesture, sign, sound, word, or word combination (i.e. pointing to the bubbles, signing ‘more’, saying “buh”, “bubbles” or “more bubbles”).  What’s important is that the adult shows the child their communicative attempt was effective.  If your child tries to communicate after you provide the temptation, respond by giving him what he asked for- in this case, more bubbles.

Here are a few other ways to use bubbles as a communicative temptation.  An adult can hold the wand near the lips ready to blow and then look expectantly at the child.  When the child communicates, say, “mommy/daddy blow bubbles”.  A good rule of thumb is to use one more word in your phrase than your child uses.  For example, if your child is pre-verbal and gestures use a single word “blow”, if your child uses single words to communicate and says “blow”, you can say “blow bubbles”.  This way you are modeling what is one-step ahead for your child.  Another way to use bubbles as a communicative temptation is to hide the wand.  Then you can’t blow bubbles and you’ll need to look for the wand.  You can go on a hunt—“ where is the wand?”  “Is the wand under the chair? Is the wand on the table?”  The important thing is to keep it fun.  Make silly mistakes like trying to blow the bubbles with the lid on so your child has to communicate.  Hopefully, you’ll both end up laughing and having fun.

Third, bubbles provide lots of opportunities to practice early speech sounds.  Here are a few words you can practice with bubbles: bubble, pop, open, and more.  All of these words contain sounds you make with your lips.  These sounds are great sounds to practice with a young child or child with a speech and language delay because it’s easy for them to see how the sounds are formed when the look at your mouth.  Don’t worry if your child doesn’t say the whole word, word approximations (i.e. “buh” for bubbles or “puh” for pop) are great ways to build speech and language skills.  So when your child uses an approximation you can repeat the whole word for him so that he hears the correct model and then when you give him more bubbles he’ll realize how powerful his words were and be more likely to try again.

Lastly, bubbles provide a good oral/motor exercise for your child’s mouth.  Your child can learn to blow bubbles on his own.  To do this, he’ll need to round his lips and control his breath.  These are both skills we use while speaking. To start you can blow bubbles and catch them on the wand, let your child try to blow the bubble off the wand.  If this is difficult, catch the bubbles on the wand and bring it to your child’s lips to pop the bubble.  This will help your child feel the pop on their lip and their lips are likely to “pop” as well with the sensation.  Eventually, your child will be blowing bubbles on his own.

Most of the previous activities are perfect for the child learning to interact or starting to use words/symbols to communicate, but as I said earlier bubbles are fun for everyone.  Bubbles encourage social interaction; older kids can take turns blowing bubbles for each other or for younger siblings.  Kids can race to see who can pop the first bubble.  You can have a contest and see who can blow the biggest bubble.  

Another way I like to extend this activity is to make my own bubbles.  You can take pictures of each step and then re-tell how to make bubbles again later.  Also, my kids love to look around the house to find things to use as bubble blowers: plastic berry containers, cookie cutters, or colanders.  You can also try to make your own wand by shaping a pipe cleaner, cutting off the bottom of a plastic water bottle, or tying a large piece of string together for a giant bubble wand.  If you use bubble wands that aren’t shaped like circles, challenge your child to predict the shape of the bubble (spoiler alert: it will always be round!)

No matter what, I hope you get outside to enjoy the sunshine and smile while blowing bubbles with your kids.