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.