Medical Necessities Part 3: Teaching Body Parts

Teaching Body Parts at Home

Your child’s ability to understand and use the names of body parts are not only an important developmental milestone measured by many standardized tests, it’s also a vital component in your child’s ability to express and report pain, a medical necessity.

While a lot of great circumstances and routines can be simulated in a therapeutic environment by a talented speech-language pathologist in order to teach body parts, I would argue that the home offers many more naturalistic (real life) opportunities to teach body parts—even if you’re just supporting what is going on in therapy.


Use Simple Songs to Facilitate Language and Attention

Bath time was always my favorite jumping off point for teaching body parts with my own kids.  Since my first born is extremely musical, I always have used songs to hold his attention (a strategy which I learned from my studies in the world of autism).  Songs have been shown time and again in studies to increase attention in children with autism.   When we are teaching language though, the song should be simple to sing, and should use repeated phrases in order to highlight the new words.

Say what you will, but this is my song (sung to the tune of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat):

Wash, wash, wash your ARM.

Wash your ARM right now.

Wash, wash, wash your ARM.

Now, wash the bubbles off.


Then you do the next verse just the same, replacing the body part. 

Wash, wash, wash your LEG.

Wash your LEG right now.

Wash, wash, wash your LEG.

Now, wash the bubbles off.


Feel free to argue with my musical composition abilities, but that one gets the job done.  It is easy to sing, uses a familiar tune, uses core vocabulary and has repeated phrases that, after a while, allow your child to focus on decoding only the NEW word.

If you sing a song like this every night, you will begin to teach your child how to understand and use words within a routine.  That’s step one.


Add Visual Supports

If you want to “double down,” you should create a visual support using picture symbols that you’ll reference while singing your song.  If you need tips on using picture symbols to create supports, check out my blog, or ask your friendly speech-language pathologist.  I’d recommend creating a visual support similar to this* (feel free to email me and I’ll send it to you):


Please note, I made a point to include the body parts that are most likely to hurt, which is in service to the real end goal: being able to report pain.  That being said, if your child doesn’t already know these words, this would be a LOT of new words/symbols to learn at once.  Be willing to start with just a few body parts and build from there–not only to decrease the language load, but also to make sure that the activity stays short, fun, and interesting.

If you think your child is ready and you really want to go crazy, you could also add “hurt” to the bottom of the support above.  This would be an especially good idea if your child has sensory issues which might make them feel pain in the bathing process.  Even if not, adding the word “hurt”, at least eventually, would allow you to have a single support that gives your child the chance to both TELL you when something hurts, and then tell you WHAT hurts!

Once you have the support that works for you, have it with you ALL THE TIME.  As I’ve said before, whether or not your child is verbal, these picture symbol icons become words to your child.  Let them have their words all the time!

Generalize the New Word Across Environments

A crucial step in helping your child “own” this set of vocabulary is helping your child generalize their knowledge of these words to different environments.  Some might call that ABA; I just call it good teaching.  Different therapists might choose to help children generalize using different strategies, but I use a combined approach, which basically means that I emphasize the word or the set of words that I’m focusing on teaching in every activity, in every environment.

The added bonus of using a visual support designed as I have above is that it is not context-specific; you or your child can use it when singing a song, when talking about what you are washing, when directing them in what to wash, or even in your play (I’ll get to symbolic play routines in a minute).  Showing your child how a visual support can be used across contexts facilitates the understanding that words are the same across environments and partners.  It also makes the words more salient, more noticeable, more important for the child.

It doesn’t even have to be a structured activity to make use of the support.  When you’re putting shoes on, talk about his foot.  When he’s getting dressed in the morning, talk about the body part you are covering or moving.  Use simple phrases like “arms up,” “leg up,” “on head,” all while pointing to the symbols for the body part on the support and demonstrating with your body.

Reinforce Language in Symbolic Play Routines

As I mentioned above, you can also reinforce body parts concepts using symbolic play routines.  I really WILL get to this topic in full eventually.  Until then, though, a symbolic play routine is very similar to a functional activity routine, with the fundamental difference that a symbolic play routine scaffolds (or walks the child through) a pretend play activity, whereas a functional activity routine allows the child to process and practice a real-life activity (like going “Trick or Treating” or getting on an airplane**).  Similar to the activity I suggested for teaching the word “hurt,” you can get out a baby doll and practice giving the doll a bath.  Using a visual support and attention-getting songs of your own making, you can guide your child through the pretend play routine, emphasizing the words for body parts as you do it (i.e., “wash tummy, wash foot”).  Dr. Rollins and I actually have written a great small group activity description in the curriculum section of our book**, complete with a suggested visual activity schedule support and supporting songs.

Be Consistent

No matter how many extra miles you decide to go in pursuit of this goal, please be consistent.  It would be better to do one body parts activity and do it full-out consistently than to do all of the activities half-way and sometimes.  With your perseverance and the support of your child’s loving professionals, his ability to understand and use body parts WILL come along!

* Picture symbol library courtesy of the Boardmaker program by Mayer-Johnson.

**These functional activity routines are outlined in detail in my chapter in Facilitating Early Social Communication Skills: From Theory to Practice by Pamela R. Rollins, MS, CCC/SLP, Ed.D.

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