Follow the Leader: Using Reciprocal Imitation to Build Play and Language

May 29, 2024

Learning to play is a foundational skill in child development.  To engage with others, children must first demonstrate joint attention.  Joint attention is the shared focus of two individuals on an object.  When playing with cars, Mr. Potato Head, or other toys with other adults or children, children should share in this experience with their partner by looking toward the partner and the toy, manipulating or sharing the toy, and/or commenting on the object.

Some children need to develop this joint attention through dedicated practice.  One way of building joint attention is through Reciprocal Imitation Training (RIT).  RIT supports the child in engaging with a play partner through 5 phases:

Phase I: Imitate the child’s actions with toys, gestures, and vocalizations (contingent imitation) and comment on what the child is doing with their toy (linguistic mapping)

Phase II: Continue to follow the child’s lead and imitation, as well as look for the child to imitate your play by modeling action and simply stating what you’re doing up to three times (e.g. move Mr. Potato Head up and down while saying “Jump” three times).

Phase III: Introduce new actions with a familiar toy that the child has already played with

Phase IV:  Introduce familiar and new actions on the same toy and introduce familiar actions on a new toy 

Phase V:  Now use familiar and new actions on familiar and new toys

Research shows that moving through these phases with a trained provider’s support resulted in increased imitation of play, increased language, increased joint attention, and increased play.  Use your play or therapy to follow the leader- your child! 

Citation: Ingersoll, B., & Schreibman, L. (2006). Teaching Reciprocal Imitation Skills to Young Children with Autism Using a Naturalistic Behavioral Approach: Effects on Language, Pretend Play, and Joint Attention. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 36 (4), 487-505.

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