Play is a really important element of learning to communicate. Through it we learn social skills, vocabulary, turn taking, sequencing, cause & effect and anticipation. As children grow and mature, their play skills also change, allowing for the development of new skills that are more varied and complex. There is variability in play development and these stages often overlap. When playing with your child it is important to get down to their level to ensure they can see their face and you can see any non verbal communication interactions.

Singing songs is an easy way to develop language through play – how many of these songs do you know?

Play through the years:


Infants (birth to 18 months)


Infants learn through the experiences they have with objects and people. During infancy, sensory-motor experiences that lead to skill development may occur “accidentally” during play. However, these experiences contribute to a child’s development. While exploring the environment, a child may be waving his arms and hit a rattle. The sound that the rattle makes teaches the infant about the sensory properties of objects in his world and the effect he can have on objects. The infant begins to understand that his hands are tools for interacting with the environment. As the infant’s reaching and grasping become more purposeful, and not just accidental, the infant soon discovers cause/effect relationships.


Infant communication through play

Prior to the emergence of oral communication, infants often engage in non-verbal communication with their play partners. For example, they exchange eye-gaze and facial expressions with their caregivers (e.g., baby smiles and parent smiles back). As infants begin to produce sounds (i.e., coo, babble), their communication partners usually imitate these sounds or respond positively, reinforcing the infant’s understanding of the effect his behavior has on other individuals. Thus, the child produces more sounds in order to create a response from the caregiver. This emergence of reciprocal interactions is a foundation for later social skill development.


Toddlers (1.5-3)


While toddlers play, they are developing the foundations for successful social, communication, motor, and academic skills. Therefore, it is important to facilitate engagement in positive and educational play activities. The development of verbal language at this time has an impact on developing play skills. Toddlers begin to imitate the language and behavior of others and engage in pretend play. They also begin to demonstrate increasing independence and are more likely to demonstrate parallel play (i.e., playing near others, but not with them). A simple game of rolling a ball back and forth begins to develop the idea of turn-taking, which is important for developing conversational and interactive play skills.


Preschool/ Reception aged (3-6)


The growth of language and cognitive skills during the preschool years leads to more complex imaginary play. At this age, children engage in more make-believe play and move from parallel play to cooperative play with peers. Make-believe play may involve dress-up, acting out past events the child has experienced, or dressing and feeding a doll. Increasing creativity and imagination are also evident in play activities, as a stick suddenly becomes a sword and the child, a pirate. An increasing curiosity about the environment results in greater interest in understanding how things are the same or different. Children at this age may enjoy sorting objects into meaningful groups or creating simple crafts. An understanding of turn-taking and increased attention span allows children at this age to also begin to play simple board games.


How to support language development through play


Play activities are an important part of your child’s life, and your child will want you to be a part of these activities.


Follow your child’s lead – An individual’s interest level often determines how engaged he becomes in a given activity. Therefore, it is important to become observers of your child’s play and engage them in play activities that they find interesting. Increased child engagement allows greater opportunities for language acquisition.


Practice turn taking – Establishing successful turn-taking routines will facilitate social and communicative skill development in young children. Turn taking is a skill that can easily be promoted through play with children of any age. Offering a brief pause when it is his turn will increase your child’s initiation, communication, and independence. During play, parents can facilitate turn taking by cooing at a baby and waiting for a response and then cooing back. With toddlers or preschoolers, you can take turns stacking blocks. Older children can take turns formally through organized games such as certain sports or board games.


Be a model and an expander – Modeling language for your child provides exposure to new vocabulary and correct grammar while speaking. Play is an excellent opportunity for a child to attach meaning to words and build vocabulary. Providing accurate language input can include commenting about what you or your child are doing, adding a word or phrase to the child’s short phrases or by modeling the correct sentence structure. This will depend on the stage of language development of the child.


Examples include the following:

Child: “car” Parent: “Yes, a big car”

Child: “car” Parent: “Go, car, go!”

Child: “He goed fast.” Parent: “Yes, he went fast.”

Child: “Mom, that’s a huge truck!” Parent: “You’re right. It’s enormous!”


Sing songs – Singing songs is a fun, interactive way for young children to learn language.


What toys would I recommend?


I often get asked by friends, “what’s the best toys to get my child?” and the answer is it doesn’t really matter as it’s how you use the toy that counts. Although my staple kit when i go to see a new client includes:


  • Bubbles – can they track them with their eyes, do they have hand eye co ordination to pop them, can they ask for more, can they label them, have they got oral motor skills to be able to blow bubbles using rounded lips
  • A pop up toy – do they show anticipation of “ready steady go”, after the first go do they show anticipation of the toy about to jump up, have they got object permanence (do they know the toy still exists after it’s been put back in the box)
  • Stacking cups – these are good for colour recognition, mine have animals on so i can also do animal vocabulary, can they attend to build the tower up, can they wait and do they show anticipation for ready steady go
  • An inset puzzle – this works on vocabulary, fine motor skills, turn taking and attention and listening skills, works on speech sound skills (can they find the piece beginning with ‘x’)
  • Post box – works on understanding (can they find the named picture to post) vocabulary (can they name the pictures as they find them) matching skills (i have doubles of my pictures – do they understand the concept of the same)
  • A ball – with young children, can they roll the ball back and forth showing shared attention and interaction skills
  • General picture cards – to see if they have a comprehension of verbs (you don’t need to buy a set of these cards we all, as parents take a lot of photos) have a look back through them and ask what is happening,
  • A book – this looks at attention and listening, comprehension (find the ‘x’ in the pictures), phonology (find the item that begins with ‘x’ what rhymes with ‘y’), sequencing (can they retell the story at the end in the correct order), inferencing (how does the person feel and why, what do you think will happen next?)


Most of these things you will have lying around the house. WIth the post box you don’t need a fancy toy post box, an old shoe box will do with a hole cut out for the pictures to go through.


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