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Learning Language Through Play: Tips for Parents

“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” -Fred Rogers

The importance of play cannot be emphasized enough. As Fred Rogers noted, play is how children learn! There are a variety of ways that play positively affects children’s development. Play contributes to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional development of young children.

One of the best ways to help your child build language skills is to sit and actively engage in play with them! Play is such a wonderful way for parents to not only help facilitate the growth of their child’s language skills but also help build a stronger relationship with their child.

Below are some strategies to help promote language development during play:

  • Get down to their level: Sit on the floor or lay on your stomach. Do whatever it takes to be at eye level with your child. Not only will this allow your child to have a front seat view to your mouth to help pick up visual cues for speech sounds, but your child will connect with you more once you are at his or her level!

  • Follow your child’s lead: Talk about and comment on what your child seems interested in. If you join in and play with a toy your child is playing with, he or she will likely be more engaged and receptive to the language you are modeling while playing with the toy.

  • Reduce the amount of questions: Especially for kids who have few words, this is a big one. We don’t want kids to feel like they are constantly being quizzed and tested. Labeling and commenting rather than questioning takes the pressure off. You can say things like “I wonder where the puppy is going!” rather than “Where is the puppy going?” This way, you are inviting your child to respond without putting pressure on him or her. The way we phrase things can make a huge difference!

  • Eliminate negative talk: If you haven’t already noticed, kids often times don’t react well to being told “no.” In fact, most people don’t respond well to negative language. When we switch our own language to speaking more positively, children tend to react and listen better! Rather than saying, “Don’t color on the table,” you can say, “Crayons are for coloring on paper.”

  • Model: Whether it’s modeling how to functionally use a toy or verbally modeling language during play, it is important to provide a good model for your child to follow (i.e., if your child says “baby hurt” you might say “put a band-aid on her”). This helps children increase their comprehension and use of language.

  • Expand: Expand on what your child says. If your child spontaneously says a word during play, try adding additional words by putting it in a simple phrase or sentence (e.g., Child: “car” Parent: “A red car”). Talk about and expand on what your child talks about and appears interested in.

  • Use repetition: Kids learn language through repetition. Especially for children with minimal expressive language, you may try focusing on a few words throughout an activity. For instance, while playing with cars, you might play a “go” “stop” game and continue using those 2 words. While building blocks, you might say “up up up” as you add a block to the tower and say “down” when they crash. Verbal routines are also a great way to incorporate repetition (i.e., saying “ready, set….. Go!” before blowing bubbles each time).

  • Wait it out: It is very typical for parents to anticipate their child’s needs and act on them. For instance, if a child is having a hard time opening a box, a parent often times will go ahead and open it for them. Rather than acting so quickly, wait it out to see if your child will request help whether that means them handing you the box or them saying “help me please.” You can say things like “that looks tricky” or “let me know if you need help” to see if they will communicate with you. It is important to give kids the opportunity to use the skills they are developing.

  • Be playful: Have fun while you are playing with your child. Use funny voices and make silly sounds. This is a great way to get your toddler’s attention and allow communication opportunities. If you’re having fun and being silly, there is a good chance your toddler is too!

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