Developing Language Through Play

Updated: Mar 18

Our children spend a lot of time playing, it's their primary occupation.


For young children, play is also the main way that they learn. Children immerse themselves in experimenting, problem solving and trying things again and again.


We can spend a lot of time playing with our kids without always recognising the full range of possibilities for learning from the experience. Playing and exploring new activities provide the ideal opportunities for learning, practising, and embedding language. They allow the freedom to try new sounds and words, to practise telling a story or to give characters voices and dialogue.


Sarah Billingham, a specialist teacher from Confident Kids, shares a few of her top tips to help you maximise language learning in your play at home.


1. Communication is a 50/50 partnership.


A successful communication partnership is a 50/50 exchange, with each person contributing equally with words and ideas.

Mother and daughter playing

We should only be talking for 50% of the interaction time and our children should be filling the other 50%. As adults we often overtalk, filling all of the available airtime and peppering our children with questions. Whenever we get even the slightest moment of silence, we tend to jump in and talk again.


If you have a really young child at the early stages of their communication development, or if your child is having a little bit of difficulty with their language development, they'll need quite a lot of space and time to be able to contribute to that communication exchange.

There are going to be periods of quiet during your child's airtime. That's okay.

Sometimes this means accepting that there are going to periods of quiet during your child’s airtime. That's okay, because they need that time to process the language that you've used, understand what you've said and to put their response together. Give them that time. Stay engaged with them using good eye contact, and don't fear that the whole thing is going fall apart.


2. Give them just a little bit more


When we are modelling or demonstrating any skill for our child, we need our model to be just one step ahead of where they are at.


In wanting to model good play and language, we can find ourselves offering a lovely rich narrative of what we're doing. However, using so much language is overwhelming and it's difficult for them to know where to start with their next steps.


If we give our children one bit at a time, it feels so much more manageable. Children learn quickly from these little steps and can actually make faster progress than if they are shown everything at once. So much more empowering!

Toddler playing with train

For example, if your child is at the stage where they are putting a train onto a track to push it around, put just one layer above that. This next step or layer could be modelling joining a second carriage to the train or some extra track; making train noises or giving a simple sentence about the play: ‘the train is on the track’; or you might make stop and go signals with your hands. However don't do all of these things at once - one next step at a time, there's no hurry.


You can apply the same idea at every level of play or language. Instead of leaping from some simplistic play to imagining a sophisticated scenario, try to break that leap down into small steps and take just one of those at a time. This is important both for developing language and the play skill itself.


3. Link back to real life experiences

Parent and child shopping

We best support language development through play when we draw from real life and our children's own experiences as much as possible. This reinforces the vocabulary and social interactions associated with those particular activities.


Early pretend play centres around re-enacting real life scenarios. We might be using a doctor's kit or making food in the play kitchen.


You don't need to have an extensive variety of role play toys, feel free to use real objects. Pots and pans, bandages from the first aid kit or food all offer wonderful opportunities for play. These real objects can be an even better way of reinforcing language as we're using those familiar objects from familiar experiences.


If you child has a lot of toys that represent things that they haven't experienced first-hand, it will be more difficult for them to incorporate the language used in those scenarios. That's not to say you should avoid those things completely, but where possible early pretend play needs to be strongly rooted in real life.


For example, a seaside playmobile set is much more relatable if you've been to the seaside and had those first-hand experiences. Create a direct link between that real-life experience and play by looking at some photos from when you were at the beach. Chat about what happened when you were there and then re-enact it in their play.


Once the language around the first-hand experiences is well established, and you move into the imaginary play stage, you can start to move into things that are less rooted in their own experience.


4. Building towards self-occupation

Toddler playing on her own

We spend a lot of time wondering when our kids will be able to occupy themselves in play. Understandably there are times when we want to leave them for 10 minutes (or longer) with their toys, while we do the things that we need to do.


Remember, for children to have sufficient play skills and enough language to keep themselves entertained, they need that play modelled to them first.


The successful experience they've had playing with you in a particular play scenario provides them with the familiarity and confidence to play on their own.


Playing together is paving the way to children being able to play on their own.


If you and your child are enjoying playing together, they're much more likely to learn from it and want to do more of it.

With all of this in mind, the most important factor for encouraging language through play is motivation. If you and your child are enjoying playing together, they're much more likely to learn from it and want to do more of it. Keep things fun and light. Even short bursts of play together, 10 focussed minutes, make a difference.

Sarah Billingham is a specialist teacher from Confident Kids, a unique Early Years’ service. She equips parents/carers and practitioners with expert knowledge and the practical tools they need to offer their little people the very best support they can.


For more tips and tools on supporting early development join Sarah's Confident Communicators Facebook group which focuses on boosting development for 2 - 5 year olds.

Little STEAMers Club for 2-5 year olds provides ideas and opportunities for play together at home on fun science related themes. You can try your first class for free.


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