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Supporting your Child’s Speech and Language Development through Play Activities!

Play has been often defined as “the work of children” as it is through play that children learn how to interact in their environment, discover their interests, and acquire cognitive, motor, speech, language, and social-emotional skills (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2007). So, play is a very important part of children’s speech, language and communication skills development.

Play can be categorized according to the stages of development.

Parten’s six stages of play

1. Unoccupied play

  • Child does not play

  • Stands in a one spot just observing others

2. Solitary/Independent play

  • Child is playing alone

  • Focus only on what he/she is doing. Unaware of their surroundings

  • More common in younger children of birth to age 2

3. Onlooker play

  • Child watches others play but does not engage

  • Occasional conversation about the playing occurs, but without joining the activity

  • More common in younger children, particularly those age 2

4. Parallel play

  • Child is playing side by side with others but separately

  • Child will not interact with others

  • This is a transitory stage to more mature play stage

  • More common in children of age 2+

5. Associative play

  • Child is more interested in the people playing instead of the activity or the object involved in the play

  • Child will interact with others, but activities are not synchronized.

  • Can be seen in children of age 3 to 4

6. Cooperative play

  • Child is interested both in other players and in the activity.

  • Play with the rules and structure. This type of play uncommon in preschool age children. It needs more maturity and more advanced organizing skills.

  • Mostly appear after the age of 4

Regardless of the stage of play, children learn new skills, new words, and how to discover the world and emotions. So as a parent/caregiver, you can facilitate your child’s speech and language development through play. Since play is an important part of your child’s life, children want you to be a part of these important play activities. This is a good opportunity for you to build up a strong bond with your child while helping him/her to learn new language skills. Pepper and Weitzman (2004) in their book “It Takes Two to Talk: A Practical Guide for Parents of Children with Language Delays” suggest some strategies to follow while playing with the child to facilitate the language development.

Follow the child’s lead:

Every child is different. So, their interests and preferences are different. Find what your child likes and when he wants to play. This will keep him/her involved. Let the child choose what he finds interesting and gradually join in when he allows you to join in. Increasing engagement will help create more opportunities for learning.

Practice turn taking:

Turn taking is an important skill in communication and social development. Communication is a two-way process, it is important for children to learn to take turns to maintain good conversation with others. You can easily prompt your child to master this skill through play. Regardless of the age of your child you can practice turn taking with them. It can be simple activities like making sounds and waiting for your baby to follow, passing a ball with your toddler, stacking blocks by taking turns with your preschooler, or structured activity like playing a board game with your older kid. While doing these activities you should use techniques like facial expressions, body language, making eye contact, waiting and gesturing for a child’s response and asking questions.

Be a model and an expander:

This is an excellent way to expand your child vocabulary, correct grammar and stimulate forming sentences. You can input language by commenting on activities, adding words and phrases, introducing synonyms, and modeling correct sentence structure while you are playing with your child. What you do will depend on your child’s current language level. For example:

If the child says “fish” you can say “blue fish”/ “swim fish swim”. If the child says “he swimed” you can say “yes he swam away”. If the kid says “it’s a beautiful dress” you can say “yes it’s a pretty dress”

Being silent and playing along nonverbally with the kid will not be enough. You have to actively engage with the child’s play to provide him with good language input.

Sing songs:

Singing is always a fun activity. Singing can facilitate your child’s language development. Singing will help in learning new words and in encouraging turn-taking. It is easy for children to learn words, numbers, shapes etc. through songs since they repeat it many times. Singing is not limited to known songs like “ba ba black sheep”. You and your child can make up songs. Adding actions to songs will also benefit other areas of development in your child.

“Singing and making music are among the most enjoyable learning activities for children. Because they have both elements - enjoyment and learning - I consider them to be essential methods of reinforcing basic skills in numeracy and literacy. While this reinforcement is useful to all children, regardless of their academic abilities, my own experiences in the classroom and as the mother of a child with Down syndrome tell me that it is vital to children with learning difficulties” Barker, J. (1999) Singing and music as aids to language development and its relevance for children with Down syndrome. Down Syndrome News and Update, 1(3), 133-135. doi:10.3104/practice.147

Reading books:

It is never too early to start reading to your child. You can read to a baby and to a 5-year-old. Reading books is a good way to develop speech and language expression and comprehension. By following the lead of your child, you can start and expand reading. You can read books with simple pictures and words to your baby by showing the pictures. You can also read simple stories with lots of pictures to support your toddler and you can ask children to find the pictures in a book. You can read simple stories with your preschooler and ask simple questions from the book to maintain the attention and stimulate memory. You can read some advanced books with an older child and ask “wh” questions from the book like “why does the bunny sleep under the tree”, “what type of a tree was it,” etc. to improve their reasoning, problem solving skills and storytelling skills. Reading is not just sitting with the child and reading out loud what is in the book - you can use facial expressions and voice modulations, as well as acting out the story with your child while reading. Those will help to facilitate your kid’s higher language functions.

Allow opportunities for repetition.

Repeat, repeat and repeat….. yes your children learn through repetition. This means playing the same game over and over, reading the same book multiple times, singing the same song for the whole day. This may sound really boring to an adult, but repetition allows a child to refine and stabilize skills. So, you should encourage your children to repeat the routines. It will help them acquire new concepts, new words, and correct sentence structures. By repeating and practicing your child will build up confidence too. So, it will help to reduce social fear and anxiety.

This is how you can facilitate your kid’s speech and language development through playing. But try not to over stimulate your kid with too many available toys at once since that will lead to lack of engagement due to the child fleeting between activities. And it will lead to confusions too.

Just giving 15 minutes a day from your time can really make a difference to your child’s speech and language development. So, make sure to give your child a special play time with you every day.

Source: Parten MB Social Participation among Preschool Children. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology. 1932; 27 (3): 243–269.

Samurdi Muthumudalige

Speech and Language Therapist

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