Using Toca Life World in Speech & Language Treatment

I started using Toca Life World when all my appointments were still on telehealth (until I got my first round of COVID shots). A year later I have patients who still request it during in-person appointments. This open-ended video game is packed with things to explore and it’s really useful for speech and langauge treatment.

I first learned about this app years ago when I read a blog about using it with contextual techniques. At the time I had a couple patients who had memorized the social scenes cards I was using and I thought Toca Life World would be a perfect way to create novel social scenes without too much time and effort! Since I got the app I’ve found lots of other uses for it. Here are some ideas complete with tutorial videos!

Irregular Past-Tense Verbs

My room for targeting irregular past-tense verbs in Toca Life World.

My patients’ most common grammatical errors are on irregular plurals (see below) and irregular past-tense verbs. So I made a room with items that have irregular past-tense verbs in them. I always start this target with flash cards and use a least-to-most cueing hierarchy (unless the child needs a consistent level of support in which case I’ll start there and then gradually give them less). So I’ll show them the card with the present tense and say “He’s eating.” then switch to the past-tense card and say, “Yesterday he…” If they need help I’ll ask, “Is it eated?” If they need more help then I’ll ask, “Is it eated or ate?” and switch the position of the target so that I either say it first or second.

Once kids have mastered the flashcards I switch to using Toca Life World. I only have to prepare the room once (unless the game crashes) and it takes about 10 minutes to prepare. For each child I’ll load the room and then put the dog on the bed and say, “He’s sleeping and sleeping and sleeping,” before I take the dog off the bed and ask what he did. Just like with the flash cards and move through the cueing hierarchy (again, unless a child demonstrates a consistent need for the same level of support).

Here’s my tutorial for creating a room to target irregular past-tense verbs in Toca Life world for FREE. This is also the first tutorial I made and it covers the basics for using Toca Life World.

And here are more of my favorite activities for addressing irregular past-tense verbs.

Irregular Plurals

Just like with irregular past-tense verbs, I always start this target with flash cards and use a least-to-most cueing hierarchy (unless the child needs a consistent level of support in which case I’ll start there and then gradually give them less). So I’ll show them the card with a single child while saying, “1 child and…” then switch to the 2 children and say, “2…” If they need help I’ll ask, “Are they childs?” If they need more help then I’ll ask, “Are they 2 childs or children?” and switch the position of the target so that I either say it first or second.

Once kids have mastered the flashcards I switch to using Toca Life World. Again, I only have to prepare the room once and it takes about 10 minutes. For each child I’ll load the room and then move the children while saying, “Here’s 1 child and 2…” just like with the flash cards and move through the cueing hierarchy (again, unless a child demonstrates a consistent need for the same level of support).

Here’s my tutorial for preparing a room so that you can target irregular plurals in the FREE version of Toca Life World. Unfortunately, there aren’t as many irregular plural targets with the free version of Toca Life World.  Here are the addons you can buy to add more targets:

  • Barn (for sheep) – $0.99
  • Dentist (for teeth) – $0.99…
  • …or the Misty Cottage (also for teeth, but it’s helpful for articulation, too) – $1.99

Here are more of my favorite play-based activities for irregular plural nouns.

Social Skills

As children with social skills deficits try to navigate our highly-social world they must first learn the basics (eye contact, following eye-gaze, attending to others, etc.) and then learn to use those skills to identify others’ emotions, inference the cause of the emotions, and problem-solve the situations causing these emotions.

In Toca Life World I like to use the community locations. I’ll choose a new location each week and come up with new ideas for each of the 4 Zones of Regulation, plus one extra. I then move the characters around and narrate a little while using the emotions button (which is on the bottom-left of the screen). For example, I’ll say the girl is going to get in line, but then have the boy in the black vest cut in front of her and use the emotions to make the girl angry. Then I’ll ask the patient, “How does she feel?” If the patient has trouble I’ll make the same face as the girl and ask what emotion that is. If he/she needs more help I ask, “Does she look angry or happy?”

Once we have that answer I’ll ask, “What made her so angry?” I try to stay away from the question, “Why is she angry,” because children often answer with the reason they think she’s angry (“She’s frowning”). Again, if the child can’t answer I’ll try giving him/her a wrong answer like, “Do you think she’s angry because the sun is out?” and then I’ll give the child a binary choice if that’s still too hard.

Once we get that answer I’ll ask, “What can she do to help this problem?” I stay away from questions like, “What can she do to feel better?” because sometimes hitting someone does make kids feel better about being mistreated. Again, if kids have trouble answering the question I’ll make an intentional mistake like, “Do you think it would help if she went home?” And then I’ll give the child a binary choice if they need more help. I refer to the Zones of Regulation a lot for this step and follow Dr. Jonice Webb’s rules for the messages of our feelings. A distilled version of this is that the green zone tells us to appreciate, the red zone tells us to advocate for fairness, the blue zone tells us to prioritize what’s important to us, and the yellow zone tells us to make sure we’re safe.

Here’s my tutorial for using Toca Life World to target these social skills using the FREE version.

And here are some more ideas for working on social skills.

Articulation/Phonology

This is how I spent so much money on Toca Life World: each addon you buy gives you new items in your house “store” (accessed by touching the blue chair button once you’re inside one of the houses in the neighborhood where you can build them). I prefer getting my articulation targets from there (rather than gathering them from the other locations) because they’re so much easier to replace if I need to. I use the doors from the Snuggle Cubs Furniture Pack (which costs $0.99) to keep items for each phoneme in because they don’t get “buggy” as often as the boxes and cabinets do. For each target phoneme I found 10 items with the phoneme in various positions. For /r/ (my most common target) I gathered 10 items for each position and I keep them in one of the suitcases to keep them organized.

Side note: Before I start using Toca Life World to target articulation/phonology with a patient I use minimal pair cards (from the original Sound Contrasts in Phonology/SCIP CD that’s no longer available to purchase except from eBay) until the patient reaches 80% accuracy with phoneme segmentation or phoneme prolongation.

When I start using Toca Life World for articulation I pull each item from the shelf and have the child repeat the word after me (often with phoneme prolongation or phoneme segmentation to start and then without either once they get more accurate). Once they’re able to do that with 80% accuracy I’ll start asking them what each item is so that they’re producing the words without a model to imitate. Once they achieve 80% accuracy at the word level without imitation I’ll start doing different things with the items like putting them in the hands of Toca Mrs. Amy or the Toca version of the patient and asking questions like, “What’s happening?” I find that’s the best way to get children to say sentences like, “You’re holding a rat” or “I ate rice.”

Here’s my tutorial on how I use Toca Life World for articulation.

Note: Yes, I skip the phrase level. I’ve yet to find a patient who’s unable to produce a target sound at the sentence level after mastering it at the word level. For younger children I’ll use shorter sentences, but I haven’t had a patient who needed the phrase level instead.

This single room has curtains, a picture of flowers, a treasure chest, a trundle bed, and a frog to work on /r/!

Once my patients have reached more than 80% accuracy at the sentence level I move on to conversation. For this I’ll go into the various locations that I bought in Toca Life World and I try to make it relevant to the season. For example, In December I used the ski slopes, ski lodge, and ice skating rink. I recorded my tutorial in October so you can see how I used the Haunted Mansion as an example. Every location has parts to explore and I keep my ears open for each child’s target phonemes as we’re exploring. For example, while working on /r/ at the haunted mansion I found costumes for the children and then asked, “Is that all we do on Halloween? We dress up and stay home?” to elicit sentences like, “No, then we go trick or treating.” Then once we’re at the haunted mansion’s door I asked, “Now we’ll just stand here, right?” to elicit, “We need to ring the doorbell.” Once we get our candy I then tell the kids we should explore the mansion. Under the sink we found recipes using the gross food in the house so I ask, “Do you think these are puzzles?” to elicit “No, they’re recipes.” Once we open the chest in the downstairs bedroom and find the radio I ask, “Is this a TV?” to elicit something like, “It’s a radio.” Once we open the sculpture’s head I ask, “What should we do with the button, just look at it?” to elicit “Press it.” Once the bookshelf opens I say, “Is that an owl up in the corner?” to elicit, “It’s a spider.” Then once we’re ready to go upstairs I’ll say something like, “I want to go upstairs but I can’t find any stairs.” to elicit, “Use the elevator.” Once we’re upstairs I try to elicit treasure chest, but often fail. To open the secret door I’ll say, “These things in frames are dogs right?” to elicit “They’re pictures.” If kids need more help I’ll say, “This is a dog, and this is a dog, and this is a dog” while moving each picture in turn. Then I’ll move one of the monsters and say something like, “This is a regular person, right?” to elicit “It’s a monster.”

I think you get the point – I make a lot of intentional mistakes to elicit the target words with the phoneme the child is working on at the conversation level.

Here are some more ideas for addressing articulation in play-based activities.

Narratives, Fluency, & Grammar

For patients who are working on creating narratives, grammar, and/or fluency, I’ll have them make narratives in Toca Life World using the “movie” button.

Step 1: press the “movie” button.

This button is only available in community locations (not in the houses you can customize). When you press and hold the button it will begin recording the video on the screen as well as your audio. I’ll load the community location, put he kid’s Toca version of himself/herself into it, start recording, and then have him/ger tell me a story of what’s happening (sometimes I move the characters in reaction to what the kid says and other times having them reacting to what I do with the characters).

Step 2: Wait until the countdown ends.
Step 3: Move the characters as the child speaks or BEFORE the child speaks. You can also use the “emotions” button on the bottom-left to drag emptions up over the characters.
Step 4: press the “stop” button.
Step 5: wait for the device to process the video.
Step 6: Press “play” and re-watch the video together.
Step 7: Press the green “save’ button or the red “delete” button.

The kids love watching the videos back and hearing themselves tell the story! For patients who are working on grammar or fluency I’ll pause the replay video whenever they make an error and have them “fix” the sentence or have them say it again “with smooth speech”.

For kids who are working on narratives I’ll also use the story they make with this FREE digital narrative grammar worksheet based on this 5-finger story retell strategy.

Here are some more ideas for working on narratives.

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