Developing Speech and Language Through Play

It was Ralph Waldo Emerson who said, “It is a happy talent to know how to play” - and he was right! Play is a powerful vehicle for learning but one does not automatically know how to play. In many ways, ‘play’ is the ‘work’ of childhood. Play allows a child to explore and experiment with objects, actions and roles observed in people around them within his immediate environment. Even when your child is playing silently, important information about the surrounding environment will be acquired and carried with him for later use.

Today, when iPads and ‘tablets’ are children’s entertainment centers, the wonderful experience of play should not be forgotten. In fact, play should be more emphasized on to create balance in your child’s life because play provides a platform for children to build lasting bonds which can last a lifetime. Apart from being a stress reducer, the process of playing also allows you to get to know and understand the uniqueness of your child.

As a child’s play becomes more developed, language and social abilities develop along-side as well. So, when you encourage your child to play and explore play options, you are not only encouraging him to explore and understand his environment better but you are also encouraging and facilitating his learning of language. Play encourages co-operation, being supportive and, as play evolves, encourages open communication.

During play, your child will WATCH actions. This starts with watching your face and your facial expressions, to watching what occurs around him all day and he learns from what he sees. In terms of speech and language development, your child watches your mouth as you speak and these movements are filed away for later use. Slowly, links between facial expressions and the moods/feelings that are associated with them, are noted.  When you speak and communicate, your body language will also convey meaning and slowly, your child will learn what your body language means as well.

During play, your child will LISTEN to you and the sounds you make, the words you say and the sentences you form. Over time, the words will begin to make sense as vocabulary becomes more meaningful.

During play, your child will EXPLORE the immediate environment and manipulate items within this environment. While your child is playing and exploring with you by his side, he will be watching you and listening to you during this process. For example, if you push the car and say, “Push the car,” you expose your child to the word ‘push’ and ‘car’ in an appropriate setting. Your actions and words during the play activity will be closely observed by your child.

During play, your child will IMITATE your actions and sounds that surround the both of you. The early infant actions like clapping, moving and waving objects around are actually a pre-verbal skill. The early sounds that are produced by your child also evolve from beginning coos to babble and then into words involving syllables. So the next time you play peek-a-boo or sing a rhyme with your child, you are helping to develop your child’s foundational speech, language, communication and social skills.

As your child grows, the opportunities to WATCH, EXPLORE and IMITATE will later contribute towards creating and formulating his owns words and sentences functionally. These acquired words will be used to communicate needs, wants, and to share information with those around your child. So basically, the more your child plays, the more learning takes place!

There are several levels of play and most children go through these stages as they develop:

Exploratory Play (Birth to 18 months)

This is when the infant shakes, bangs and turns over toys and other objects that are encountered. To help your child at this stage you can encourage your child to hear, see, touch, move, taste and smell objects and foods that are available within the child’s routine and immediate environment. This exposes the child to a very rich and more importantly, functional vocabulary the child will acquire through exposure.

Functional Play (1;06 years old – 2;00 years old)

At this stage, the child begins to use objects the way he has seen them used in their environment (e.g. listening to a toy phone, pushing a car, stirring a cup with a spoon). To further support the development of play at this stage, you can show your child how to use functional objects within your environment and encourage him to copy your actions.

Creative Symbolic Play (2;00 years old)

At this stage, children will be noted to use items to represent other items within play (e.g. a box used to represent a car). To develop this stage of play, provide your child with props for play (e.g. cars, puppets, dress-up clothes etc.) and create opportunities for your child to play with other children of the same level of development as your child.

Pretend Play (3;00 years – 4;00 years old)

At this stage, the child starts to play with imaginary friends and/or animals. Often, the child will pretend to be someone else. To promote this stage of play, incorporate the practice of reading stories to your child. Again, the language component in this activity is very stimulating. Props and opportunities to play with other children as mentioned earlier, promotes pretend play as well.

Sequenced Pretend Play (4;00 years and more)

At this stage of play development, the child acts out sequences observed in the immediate environment, what is seen on television and even what has been read in books and stories (e.g. school, doctor’s visits etc). To reinforce the development of play at this stage, you can reinforce the sequence of daily events your child encounters by talking about them. Let your child develop the theme and share his world. Allow him to lead and ask questions, playing along and being silly along with him.

While it is powerful to allow the child to lead, do be cautious of over stimulation and, as the adult in the activity, monitor and know when it is time to stop. Having said that, the wonderful experience of sharing your child’s play will not only be enjoyable but you can use the time to teach patience, problem solving skills, social skills and creativity.

Jennifer Peters-Lee is a Consultant Speech-Language Pathologist who has made meaningful communication, her life’s work.

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Jennifer Peters-Lee

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