The Importance of Play in Speech & Language Development
Play is how children grow, learn, and experience the world. It is a child’s “job” to engage in play to develop communication, social skills, cognition, reasoning, and problem solving. Play “consists of spontaneous, naturally occurring activities with objects that engage attention & interest” (Lifter & Bloom, 1998)
Learning from play begins as soon as a child is born. Babies watch their parents’ mouths as they speak, observe facial expression and body language, and listen to interactions between spouses and other children. They observe and eventually engage in games of peek a boo, stacking blocks, rolling a ball back and forth, and blowing bubbles. Most importantly they are gaining hands on experience with these items, which facilitate word learning and retention. Play interactions have a pivotal role in helping children learn vocabulary and ways to communicate with others.
Play and language skills grow in conjunction with one another. As one becomes more complex so does the other. Babies play by mouthing and banging objects and communicate by cooing, babbling, and clapping. Toddlers push cars, build with blocks and begin to use words and short phrases. Preschoolers engage in pretend play with dolls, play food and create scripts and dialogue to go along.
Parents and educators should take an active role in fostering play skills. It is important to follow your child’s lead during play. The more engaged in an activity your child is, the more likely he or she is to acquire language. Parents can provide scaffolding to encourage language development by turn taking, modeling, and expanding utterances. Modeling and expanding provides opportunities to learn new vocabulary, as well as correct grammatical structure.
Child: “Bubble” Parent: “Yes, a big bubble.”
Child: “Bubble” Parent: “Blow a bubble.”
Child: “I ‘popped-ed’ the bubble!” Parent: “Yes, you did pop the bubble!”
Child: “Look a big bubble!” Parent: “That’s a giant bubble!”
Repetition is also a key element of play and language learning. Repeating a play activity allows your child to master a skill and then build upon it. For example, singing children’s songs like “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” or “Itsy Bitsy Spider” or completing a familiar puzzle allows for repeated exposure to vocabulary and understanding of sequencing. An activity that seems repetitive and boring to an adult is actually a wonderful opportunity for the child to master familiar language.
While repetition is important, so is variation in the type of play. Children should engage in structured and unstructured or independent play. It is important to let your child play on his or her own to develop independence, as well as with you. When you are involved in play, be present! Avoid using cell phones and other devices and let your child know that she deserves your attention. Make eye contact, smile, and most of all be patient! Allow your child time to respond, react, and comment about the environment or activity. Remember, what seems easy and mundane to adults may be a whole new world for a child.
“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning.” -Fred Rogers