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Visual support: objects of reference

What are objects of reference?

Objects of reference are objects that are used alongside spoken language to represent activities, people, places, or events. These objects can support transitions from one activity or place to another.

You’re probably already using some objects of reference, for example if you show your child a nappy when it’s time to be changed.

Why do we use objects of reference?

  • to make situations predictable for a child, so they can understand and anticipate what will happen
  • to signal the start of a new activity
  • to increase understanding of spoken words, by linking a word with an object or activity
  • to develop independence skills, as the child learns to use the objects to make choices, request items, and transition between activities or places by themselves

Choosing your objects

Choose some objects to represent different activities for your child. Use each object consistently, using the same object to represent the same activity each time, so your child learns to match the object to the activity and the spoken word. Everyone around your child needs to use the same objects too, such as at home and in nursery.

Some examples of objects of reference include:

  • nappy for changing time
  • bag or coat for outside
  • plate for dinner time
  • towel or toy for bath time
  • carrier bag for shopping
  • toy car for car journeys
  • toothbrush for brushing teeth


How do I use objects of reference?

Person holding up an orange box for another person

1. Show the object to your child immediately before the activity it represents, to tell them what is going to happen – for example, hold up a bowl and say “snack time”.

A person carrying a green box

2. Bring the object with you to the activity or place, and keep it nearby – you can even let your child hold it just before and during the activity.

A person putting an object on a shelf

3. Put the object back where it lives to show the activity is finished afterwards.

Extra notes

A smiling face with a hand pointing and a thought bubble with an exclamation point inside

Once your child is familiar with their objects of reference, they might be able to point to them or bring them to an adult to indicate their wants and needs.

Two people, one with their back facing the other

Sometimes, children move away or resist when they’re shown an object – for example, you might show them a nappy and find that they run away. Although frustrating for you, this is actually really good in terms of their communication: they are showing that they understand the object of reference and they are communicating their rejection of the activity!

A face with musical notes coming from their mouth to show singing

As well as using objects within your routine, you can also use them when playing – for example, you can find objects to represent your child’s favourite songs (such as a star for Twinkle Twinkle, a spider for Incy Wincy Spider, or a bus for Wheels on the Bus). Your child can learn which object represents which song, and then choose which song you sing by picking an object.

Think carefully about what object your child might already associate with an activity – it might not be the object you expect! For example, you might show your child their bag when you’re going to a playgroup – but your child might associate playgroup with the fluffy rug they always sit on when they’re playing, so some similar fluffy fabric might be more meaningful to them. Try and think about the objects from your child’s perspective, so that it makes sense to them.

Additional resources and information

A training video on Objects of Reference.

Time: 13 minutes

Contact us

For more information please contact the Speech and Language Therapy Service at Flockton House on 0114 226 2333.

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Please note: this is a generic information sheet relating to care at Sheffield Children’s NHS FT. These details may not reflect treatment at other hospitals. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professionals’ instructions. If this resource relates to medicines, please read it alongside the medicine manufacturer’s patient information leaflet. If this information has been translated into another language from English, efforts have been made to maintain accuracy, but there may still be some translation errors. If you are unsure about any of the guidance in this resource or have specific questions about how it relates to your child, always ask your healthcare professional for further advice.

Resource number: SL21

Resource Type: Article

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