How to Teach Communication Skills by Making Balloon Animals (Or Playing With Any Toy Really)
Earlier this year, I thought my son might be interested in learning to make balloon animals.
It turns out that he loves balloon animals, so I now frequently make different animals when I work with him. I’m not an expert in making balloon animals (and I still have trouble sometimes), but I can usually find a YouTube video that demonstrates what he wants me to make and I give it a try!
So, how can we use balloon animals to work on language and communication skills? I actually started by simply letting him tell me what animal he wanted (either by saying the name of the animal or by pointing to a picture in the instruction book that came with the kit). So, this was a simple mand (an ABA term for a request) for him to use communication to tell me what he wanted. He would request it, and I would attempt to make it.
If you’re thinking about how you can get your child or students to make the request, we’ll talk about prompting at the end of this post.
Here are some other ways you can work on language with balloon animals. With a little bit of creative thinking, you can apply these same concepts to many favorite toys and activities.
Animal names: Asking for a certain animal.
Colors: Telling you which color balloon he/she wants to use.
Counting: If a balloon animal requires the use of more than one balloon, you can have the student count the balloons.
Writing: If the student is working on writing, you can have the student write down the balloon request, either just one word, a phrase such as “green fish,” or a sentence such as “I want a fish” or “I want a red dog.”
Lesson Plans: It might be a fun idea to make balloon animals about what you’re learning. For example, one of my students was looking at the book “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish,” so I made some balloon fish of those colors to act out the book while we were reading.
Pronoun Reversals: If you just focus on having fun playing with the balloons with your child or student, other opportunities may present themselves. As an example, when you’re making balloon animals, you generally want to let a little bit of air out of the balloon before you tie it to make the balloon softer and easier to twist. One of my students likes to feel that air from the balloon on his hand. When I would ask him if he wanted to feel the air, he would say “on your hand” (when he meant his own hand). I worked with some prompting techniques (described below) to have him say “on my hand” before I let the air out of the balloon on his hand.
Literacy/Reference Skills: Another kind of unique example was that I worked on using a table of contents in a book with this student. The balloon kit came with an instruction book of different animals that you would make with the balloons. When he would ask me for a certain animal, we would look up the animal name in the table of contents, see what page it was on, and turn to that page.
You can use these same principles to apply to many of your child’s favorite toys and activities. Just start playing with them and watching them play, and you’ll probably come up with some teaching ideas. If you want help to come up with ideas on how to use a particular toy or activity to teach language, please join my Naturalistic ABA Ideas Group on Facebook and we would love to help you think of some ideas!
As promised, here are a few strategies for how to actually prompt and teach your child or student to use language in the context of activities.
Prompting and Prompt Fading
In order to get your child to use language to request things (as we talked about in the activities above), you will often need to provide a prompt or demonstration for what you want the child to say. There are a few great blog posts written by other educators that outline how to use prompts (and how to “wean” the child off of the prompts, so they’re not dependent on them). Check out these links for tips and consult with a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) for more instruction on how to use prompts and prompt fading.
Be a Giver, Not a Taker
This advice is often given in teacher training and behavior analysis training. When we find something a child is interested in, it can be tempting to let them play with it for a few minutes, then gently take it from them so that they have an opportunity to language to ask for it again. We do this because we know that it’s important for students to have many opportunities to practice language and that they’re highly motivated when they’re asking for a favorite toy or game. However, if we’re constantly taking the item from the child, that might start to get a bit frustrating. Rose from ABA Speech has written a great little blog post on how you can still give a child lots of practice with manding, but not “be a taker.”
If you’d like more information on using these strategies, I highly recommend this excellent book:
Here are some issues to consider when deciding if this is a good idea for your child or student.
The balloons might pop. This seems obvious, but if your student or child is sensitive to loud noises or might otherwise be upset by a balloon popping, this might not be the best activity. I’ve learned that, especially when you’re new at making balloons, that you will definitely pop them sometimes.
Safety issues. If your child or student likes to put objects in his or her mouth (or has younger siblings that might), use balloons with caution. Sometimes, small pieces of balloons might end up around the room (especially when one pops), so I might not advise this activity if any of these are safety concerns for the student or any pets or siblings.
When the balloon doesn’t look how the child wants it to look. It’s been pretty funny, but many of the balloon creatures I’ve made don’t end up looking entirely accurate to the ones pictured in the videos. The students I’ve used balloon animals with have been pretty tolerant of that, but I can imagine some of other my students I’ve had over the years getting focused on wanting it to look the right way (with is perfectly understandable), and perhaps being a bit upset when I don’t make it right. So, if you think your child or student might have higher expectations than us beginner balloon twisters can offer, this might not be the best activity.