When I help children learn language, I want them to fall into a really deep hole. It’s not as mean as it sounds! By thinking about learning new skills as “falling into a hole” vs. “climbing into a mountain,” we, parents and professionals, can structure our play with children to help them learn more while struggling less. Here’s how it works.
It’s all about a mindset shift. A “Mountain Mindset” says, “I am going to think of an activity and then along the way I’ll place some obstacles in the child’s path so that he has to work on a specific skill.” If I’m expecting a child to do something unnatural while playing, or to do something hard in conversation (for example, use a new sentence structure out of the blue), that’s a mountain. In practice, this might look like playing a board game and expecting the child to do xyz every five spaces (something that is clearly “practice” and not a part of the game) to get another turn.
A “Hole Mindset” is different. Digging holes means that you look for ways to make practice opportunities so easy, so inevitable, that the child can’t help but fall into them, like walking along a road and all of the sudden falling down a hole (and another hole, and another hole — repeated practice is important!). For example, if I want to practice pronouns, I could build some mountains and pull out some pronoun flashcards and ask the child to label “It’s her dog, it’s his cat” until both of our eyes glaze over, or… I could do a normal, everyday activity like folding laundry, and as we sort the items for various family members, aha! there’s our hole: You have to use pronouns to determine to whom each item belongs. It just makes sense. A hole-y conversation might look like an average chat about the child’s upcoming birthday party, but when you look behind the scenes and see that the adults in the situation are choosing what to say in order to give the child chance after chance to use future tense “will…” in sentences, it all makes sense.
Scaling mountains is hard for the child. Digging holes, on the other hand, forces parents and therapists to do a lot more work. But that’s only fair, isn’t it? We know the language, we have the skills, so it’s our job to creatively structure the environment to give the language learner (the child) many opportunities for natural practice. It’s a good check for us as clinicians: If a child is really struggling with mastering a new skill or concept, could it be that the mountains we’re placing in his path are too high? Could we restructure our intervention to be one that is more hole-y with many naturally occurring opportunities to use the new skill? Put on your thinking cap/hard hat and get out your shovels!