Friday, October 14, 2011

Every Day Language Learning: My Love Affair With Mr. Potato Head

Today's guest post is written by fellow speech-language therapist Brie Schindel, who blogs over at Toddler Talk. I follow up her post with a few thoughts of my own about the different types of strategies you can use while playing potato head with your little one. Enjoy!

I'm expecting a baby in 3 short weeks and in an attempt to be VERY organized before my second child arrives, I began my Christmas shopping a few weeks ago! While shopping at Costco for my 22 month old nephew Tyler, I was overjoyed to discover a jumbo Mr. Potato Head multi-pak. This kit has at least 3 different sizes of Mr. Potato Head and all the accompanying body parts.Mr. Potato Head is such a universally popular toy for young children that I shared my purchase with Tyler's mom, in order to be sure she didn't pick one up for him before Christmas. 

As a Speech-Language Pathologist, I may love Mr. Potato Head for slightly different reasons than the average parent. Vocabulary sizeat age 2 is a critical predictor of future language and literacy development in elementary school.  Mr. Potato Head is a fantastic tool for teaching one of the core vocabulary groups for young children - body parts.  Along with providing one more way to teach your child about body parts, Mr. Potato Head provides the opportunity to model some great position words like 'in', 'out' and 'on'.  Now throw my Costco purchase into the mix and you've got the opportunity to talk to your young child about 'big' and 'small' Mr. Potato Head and the different sizes of accompanying pieces, which may be 'too big' or 'too small' for the Potato Head your child is playing with.

When I'm working as a Speech-Language Pathologist, these are the things I'm thinking about, but when I'm playing with my own daughter I use the words and concepts very naturally and we just have fun with a classic, favorite toy.

Read more of Brie's thoughts on speech and language by heading over to Toddler Talk!

Becca's note: I love Brie's post because it underscores how easily we can use every day play time to work on language. And there are lots of ways to do so:
  • As Brie noted, it's super easy to use parallel talk, self talk, and description to model (say) the name of the different body parts as you play with them. It seems so simple, but it's a step that parents often forget. Say eye as you pick up an eye, nose as you hand her a nose, and teeth as she puts the teeth on. Do this many, many times (yes, you will sound like a broken record!) and pretty soon your child will start doing the same.  
  • You can also pair actions with words during this activity.  Say "on" every time you put a piece on, and "off" each time you take a piece off. These concepts of "on" and "off" are very early developing ones; toddlers will naturally repeat the words as they do the actions. Potato Head can also "walk walk walk" across the floor, go "boom" as he falls on the ground, and "jump" off the couch onto the floor (creating great excitement when all the pieces fall off along the way!).  Say the word each time the action happens.
  • Give your child choices. Hold an ear in one hand, and a nose in the other, saying "ear? (hold up ear) or nose?" When your child reaches or points at one, give it to him while labeling it again ("Ear! You want ear.").  Eventually, he'll start making the choice by saying what he wants. 
  • Give him a chance to find the body part that matches the potato head part you have. Hold an ear up to your ear, saying ear and then give him the nose....see if he'll hold it up to his. Work on receptive language (understanding) by making a game of finding the part that you name.
  • Use expansion when he uses a single word. This is a great chance to work on early developing two-word phrases. When he says, eye when putting the eyes on, you say eye on; when he says shoe while talking a shoe off, you say, shoe off; when he picks up a big nose and says nose you say (anyone?) big nose; and when you clean the pieces up, you can model eyes done, nose done, shoes done one at a time while putting the pieces back in the box (pairing your words with your actions yet again!)
  • Because it has pieces, Potato Head also lends itself to being a communication temptation. If your child lets you, you can hold the pieces in your lap and hand him a piece one at a time. Then wait. See if he communicates that he wants more. Depending on his language level, you can ask him to say or sign "more," ask for a specific piece (nose or eyes?), or use a two word phrase to clarify which piece he wants (Blue shoes or red shoes? Big nose or small nose?). It's also an easy way to work on carrier phrases such as "I want a...." or "I have a...."
  • Finally, my potato head loves to eat food, dance around, go to sleep, and play hide and seek. All beautiful ways to work on pretend play, which begins emerging around one year and takes off in earnest by 18-24 months 
Looking for more every day language learning tips?


  1. That's too dunny! Cash loves his "tato" head time at therapy. Though, being the 3 year old boy that he is, the tato heads end up having "wars" with each other. At least he's getting them together and identifying all of the parts, all the while working on his patience and eye contact.

    I think Mr. Head is on our Christmas list!

  2. Very funny - could not help but relate to this post. There is no way to look at toys w/ our SLP lenses. However, I must say that I used Mr Potato Head SO frequently in my clinical practice, I could not bear to have one in the home when I had my daughter (now 7).

  3. Claire...ha! Boys will be boys! My daughter sits and dresses potato head so calmly and sweetly. My son *always* had him fighting and crashing and banging...usually before even getting the pieces on.

    Stacy, YES. :) I laughed at Brie's description of being "overjoyed" at finding a jumbo potato head...I'm pretty sure that only SLPs (and maybe early ed teachers) can relate to the pure joy that is finding a toy that you know will work well for language. My favorite? Wind up toys! I'm pretty sure I actually drooled when I found them 10 for $10.00 the other day...

  4. I work in early intervention as a child development specialist and was so thrilled to discover your blog tonight. It is late and I was googling to try to find information to help me explain something a child was doing that I recently evaluated. I was trying to find a term for 2 word phrases like "all done", "thank you", etc. that distinguishes them from two word phrases like "car go", "Mommy help", etc.

    Anyway, your blog popped up in my search and I'm so glad it did! I've only read one entry, but plan to add it to my blog feed so I can read more! :)

  5. Hey Kim,

    Thanks so much for the comment! I love to hear how people find the blog and it's so nice to get positive feedback, too! Glad you stumbled across Child Talk and am super glad to hear you like it! :)

    Did you find the answer to your question? Off the top of my head, I don't actually even know the official word for two word phrases that are learned and repeated as a chunk like that. I just always call them "phrases that are repeated as a single word" -- and you can usually tell that they are a single word to the child because you don't see the child ever use the words in them outside of the phrase (e.g, you never hear him use "thank" as part of any phrase but 'thank you'--as compared to "car" and "go" in your above example, which would be used on other types of two word phrases as well - big car, and go ball!). I am super glad, though, that you distinguish between these types of two word phrases (the "rote" ones that are learned as a chunk and the "generative" ones that are flexible, interchangeable, real two word phrases)-- many professionals don't see the difference and I think it is a very important one!

    Thanks again for the comment!

  6. I did not find a term, and was so certain there must be one out there. What I did find on your blog was a breakdown of different 2 word phrases, like "action+object", "descriptor+object", so I used examples like that in my report to make the distinction. It was very helpful b/c I do think it's important for parents to understand.

    I like what you said above about the 2 word phrases like "thank you" and "all done" really being one word in the child's mind. It's almost like one word with a lot of syllables to them. :)I'm definitely going to use that explanation with families. I still wish there was a concise term... If you ever come up with one or see one do let me know! :)