You can bring a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.

You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. 

One of the most commonly asked questions I get asked by parents is “how do I make my toddler talk?” Make a toddler talk? Let me just tell you, you cannot make a toddler talk.

You cannot make a toddler do anything.

Here is what I know to be true. 

You cannot make a toddler eat. 

You cannot make a toddler sleep. 

You cannot make a toddler pee or poop. 

You cannot make a toddler talk.

Do you know what you can end up making a toddler do? You can “make” a toddler cry! 

origin of the phrase

People, like horses, will only do what they have a mind to do.

This phrase describes parenting a toddler very well. Wait. This phrase describes interacting with all humans.

How do you “make” a toddler talk? The answer is play.

The answer, by the way, to how to teach your child to talk is to play with your child. There are a ton of teaching strategies for language, and most of them involve play. OR they assume that you are already good at playing with you child.  Unfortunately this isn’t always the case. Some parents don’t know how to play with their child, so in early intervention we teach them.  

My grandma used to say “you can take a horse to water, but you cannot make him drink.” This is true with toddlers too.

You can set a toddler on the potty, but you cannot make her pee. 

You can put a toddler in her warm and cozy bed, but you cannot make a her sleep. 

You can serve a toddler a nutritious and delicious meal, but you cannot make her eat. 

And finally you can yell and scream, but you cannot make a child talk.

Here’s another dose of “make a toddler talk” reality.

The answer is play, but play is something you don’t DO TO your child. You do it WITH your child. She needs to be actively engaged. Research shows that children learn through play, but in order for it to be “play,” your toddler must engage in the play activity for enjoyment rather than a practical purpose.

You can buy your toddler all the expensive toys in the world, but you cannot make your child play. If your toddler is not playing, you need to help her learn how be playful with you! 

This excerpt from this NAEYC article explains how adults can teach through play.

“Guided play maintains the joyful child-directed aspects of free play but adds an additional focus on learning goals through light adult scaffolding (Weisberg et al. 2016). It offers an opportunity for exploration in a context specifically designed to foster a learning goal. As such, it features two crucial elements: child agency (the child directs the learning) and gentle adult guidance to ensure that the child progresses toward the learning goal. Research suggests that guided play is a successful pedagogical tool for educators in a variety of areas (Weisberg et al. 2016). “

As the adult in your child’s life (therapist, parent or caregiver) you can use playtime with your child as an opportunity to embed your learning goals (like talking) into the experience. Even if you are “just playing” your child is still having meaningful experiences with objects, people and activities that reinforce learning skills. 

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