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Language and Play

Quite often, a play-based approach is used during speech-language therapy. During play, your child is building skills in many aspects of development, including language and communication. Every time your child rolls a ball, inserts a puzzle piece, or pretends to feed a doll, their brain is analyzing the situation and taking it all in!

Playing is a wonderful way to encourage language development while making sure your child is interested and having fun. In this post you will learn about different forms of play, stages of play, and some tips on how to encourage language when playing with your child.


Forms of Play

  • Exploratory play: During this type of play, your child is using all their senses to learn about his or her surroundings. Some examples include water play, sand play, finger painting (messy play!), and outdoor play.

  • Constructive play: This type of play is just as it sounds! Your child is constructing or making something new by combining objects and materials together. Some examples include stacking blocks, taking blocks apart, building a fort out of pillows, and doing arts and crafts.

  • Pretend play: Another name is ‘symbolic’ or ‘dramatic play’. In this form of play, children might pretend to do everyday activities like cooking, sleeping, or shopping. Pretend play is fun and creative. Other examples of pretend play include playing with figurines/dolls and pretending to be a fireman. Pretend play becomes “sociodramatic play” when children are pretending and enacting real-life types of play activities together.

  • Games with rules: Games with rules encompasses cooperative play and promote social skills such as turn-taking. It is also a great way to practice following directions! Examples include playing tag, “Simon says”, “Duck, duck, goose” or board games.


Stages of Play

Knowing the different stages of play is helpful to understand where your child is in terms of development. Every child goes through each stage at their own pace.

1. Solitary play (Birth – 2 years) Children play alone with toys that are nearby and do not yet have interest in playing with others.

2. Parallel play (2-3.5 years): Children continue to play independently, but alongside peers who are also playing with the same toys. In this stage children play beside but not with each other. The children might interact occasionally however keep to themselves most of the time.

3. Associative Play (3.5+ years): In this stage, children interact with each other and are involved in the same play activity. Children might discuss what to do, approve or reject each others’ ideas.

4. Cooperative play (4.5+ years): During this stage of play, children play in groups but in a more sophisticated manner where they might negotiate between themselves. For example, a group of 3 children playing doctor might discuss who will be what roles, discuss how to play the scene out, and make suggestions.

As children mature and grow their play will increase in complexity. When playing at home with your child, here are some ways you can encourage language:

  • Follow their lead and observe what your child is doing. When your child gravitates towards a certain toy or activity. It means they are motivated! When they are interested it means you will have more opportunity to join in and engage with them.

  • Wait to see what your child will do or say. Very often, adults tend to jump right into the activity, taking away a chance for your child to express themselves. Waiting gives your child a chance to communicate with you!

  • Listen to all your child’s words and sounds. When we listen attentively to children, we let them know what they have to say is important. This builds confidence in and self-esteem.

  • Narrate the play. Talk about what is happening by highlighting certain words. Comment on what your child is doing and expand it. For example, if your child says, “The car is driving”. You could say, “The car is driving fast”.

  • Have fun! Be silly! Make funny noises and sounds. Encourage creativity and experiment with different ways of playing with the toys. Enjoy the time spent playing with your child!


  • Hanen

  • Kimberly A Biddle, Ana Garcia-Nevarez, Wanda J Henderson & Alicia Valero-Kerrick. (2013). Play and the Learning Environment. Early Childhood Education: Becoming a Professional (258-285). Sage Publications


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