Play and language

By Madison Gwizdalski MS-CCC, SLP

“Play gives children a chance to practice what they are learning.” ~ Mr. Rogers

Flashcards, quizzing, educational television shows… it might seem like this would be the best way to teach our children new language concepts. But what if I told you that the best way to connect with your child is to become a child again?

What does that mean?!

It means get down on the floor and PLAY! Play is the most important way that children learn about their world, and it is our job as adults and caregivers to facilitate that learning. Play teaches children new skills… and one of the most important skills for them to learn is language. 

In fact, research has shown us that play develops hand in hand with language. The development of play and language typically mirror each other – as a child meets their developmental play milestones, they meet certain language milestones. Dr. Carol Westby has even developed a play scale that describes stages of play from 9 months to 5 years of age, that allows you to track and predict what language and play skills will emerge next. So, when a child’s play skills are impaired…. Typically that also means an impairment with language skills.  

To get a better understanding of how play and language develop together, let’s take a look at 4 stages of early play. 

Age Range What Play Looks Like Communication Skills
Exploratory play
0-8 months
  • Sensory and motor exploration of toys
  • Play behaviors consist of looking at, reaching for, grasping, and mouthing items
  • Babies learn about their world and learn how to interact with others
  • They begin to shift and share attention between people and objects, take turns, and develop a longer attention span
Nonfunctional Play
Starts around 8-12 months
  • Babies learn about their world by completing activities with toys and objects that support their cognitive development
  • Mouthing of objects decreases
  • New actions with object emerge, such as banging, patting, throwing, rolling, taking out and putting in
  • Object permanence emerges
  • Joint attention and showing/giving objects to caregivers emerges
  • Babies begin to use gestures and demonstrate communicative intent 
  • Some words may emerge
Beginning Functional Play
Begins at 12-15 months
  • Begins to use familiar toys and objects for their “intended purposes” (stacking blocks, driving a car, etc.)
  • Toddlers use adults during play to help them learn how to use toys or to get attention
  • Learns about toys through trial and error (will try to figure out how it works!)
  • Single words emerge that are used to request, command, protest, label, respond, and greet
  • Child begins to point to objects
Early Symbolic Play
Begins around 17-18 months
  • Early pretending emerges as toddlers begin to use one object to represent something else (such as feeding self pretend food)
  • Toddlers use realistic props to pretend
  • Toddlers pretend themes revolve around familiar, everyday activities that they experience (such as eating, sleeping)
  • A toddler begins to use more single words that have more variability in purpose
  • May use language to request, seek assistance, comment, of express intent/feelings (hungry, want that, mad)

Why do we see that toddlers usually develop increased words as early symbolic play emerges? Because language is symbolic. In symbolic play, we are using objects to represent things or situations that are not currently happening, but that are linked to our reality. With language, we are using words (another symbol!) to represent and express things related to events in the word that we are experiencing or have experienced. As our capacity for symbolic thinking develops, so do the ways in which we can use language to express ourselves. 

How can we foster play development in our littles? Here a just a few tips on how you can support play development (and therefore language development!):

  1. Start at the appropriate level: play develops in a sequential manner. Your child needs to go through the earlier stages of play before they begin to use early symbolic play. 
  2. Choose toys and objects that support your child’s stage of play. See here for a list of toys for each stage. 
  3. Stay and play with your child! Sit face to face on the floor, model how to use the toy, and provide opportunities for practice. 
  4. When you purchase toys, make sure they practice a variety of skills. For example, you want some toys that practice turning, switching, dropping in, stacking, putting together, etc. 
  5. Be fun! Play should be light-hearted, fun, and cheerful! Reduce “nos” and increase “yays!”


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