Expert Articles

The power of play and early language

Author: Karen KEI
Speech and Language Therapist

Children spend most of their time playing and exploring.  Play is how children learn about the world. It gives children an opportunity to understand the world around them as well as to practice how to interact and socialise with others. Every time a child plays, they learn something new. It could be a new concept, motor skills and especially language and communication skills. Play and language often go hand in hand as young children acquire new concepts and knowledge through play and would use language to support their thinking and learning.

6 Stages of play
Unoccupied Play (Birth - 3months)

Makes a lot of movement with their arms, legs, hands, feet, etc. They are learning about and discovering how their body moves.

Solitary Play (Birth -2 Years)

Prefers to play alone. They are not interested in playing with others.

Spectator/Onlooker Behaviour (2 Years)

Begins to watch other children playing but does not play with them.

Parallel Play (2+ Years)

Plays alongside or near others but does not play with them.

Associate Play (3-4 Years)

Begins to interact with others during play. They might be coping or responding to an activity related to the kids around him, but might not actually be interacting with another child.

Cooperative Play (4+ Years)

When a child plays together with others and has interest in both the activity and other children involved in playing.

Types of play

Within each stage of play, there are many other types of play when children will engage in different activities. Some children may be more interested in certain types of play and they might engage in more than one type of play at the same time.

Physical play

Climbing, swinging, running, throwing. Physical play encourages children to be active and help towards their gross motor and fine motor skills.

Constructive play

Build a tower, making a city with blocks. Constructive play allows children to develop planning skills, cooperation skills as well as problem-solving skills.

Sensory play

Playing with sand, jelly, beans, shaving foam etc. In sensory play, children engage their senses to learn how things taste, smell, feel, look and sound. Sensory play is very important to a child’s development as it stimulates their senses as well as fine motor skills.  

Pretend play

Play with dollhouses, farm sets, doctor sets, fancy dresses. Pretend play is great for facilitating creativity and imagination skills. It encourages children to develop language and skills and how they express themselves. 

Symbolic play

Imagine a cushion as a steering wheel, a toilet roll as a tunnel. Symbolic play involves using one object to represent another. This type of play encourages children to use their imagination and develop problem solving skills.

Competitive play

Board games, group games or sport games are some examples of competitive play. These games often come with rules and there are winners and losers. It promotes turn-taking skills, teamwork as well as emotional regulation which are important to a child’s social and emotional development.

Structured vs unstructured play

Structured play requires children to follow directions or rules. This includes: board games, puzzles, team sports such as football, basketball, and classes such as dancing and music.

Unstructured play allows children to do whatever interests them, without many directions or rules. This includes: outdoor play, pretend play and physical play.

Why should I play with my child?

Some of the benefits of play includes:

  • Develop creativity and imagination skills
  • Promote problem solving skills
  • Recognise one’s emotions and feelings
  • Understand social situations
  • Strengthen observation skills
  • Discovering interest
  • Building confidence
  • Encourage flexibility and adaptability
  • Promote resilience
How can I encourage play?
  • Let your child lead
  • Be silly and get creative
  • Comment and ask questions
  • Explore new environment
  • Play in different ways
What is the relationship between play and language?

Play allows children to learn language in a fun and laid-back way. During play, infants and young children can learn new vocabulary, turn-taking skills, and problem solving skills which are essential to language development. Make sure you give them plenty of time to process spoken information and repeat as many times as possible. Children never get tired of playing and every time is an opportunity to learn something new.

Here are some examples of how to incorporate language into play.

0-12 months

Sing action songs like ‘The Wheel on the bus’ and play games like ‘peek-a-boo’ to encourage communication and concentration. You can get toy props such as a toy bus, puppets or a cloth to support their understanding.

12-24 months

Encourage your child to copy everyday actions such as pretending to talk on the phone, cooking, feeding one another. Comment on what you are doing and encourage your child to do the same. For example, ‘’I’m cooking eggs’’, ‘’Hello daddy! I love you!’’.

24-36 months

Set up regular playdates and encourage your child to join in as much as possible. You can ask your child to bring their favourite toy or food and share with others. For example, ‘’Let’s bring your teddy bear to see Charlotte’’, ‘’Let’s play catch with Joe’’.

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The power of play and early language