Play and its Relationship to Language

Play and its Relationship to Language

By Karen A Francioso-Howe, MS CCC

Play, play, play

It is such an important part of a child’s preschool development.  It is how a child learns to problem-solve, interact, turn-take and socialize with peers.  But, did you know that play is also an important prerequisite for language development? People do not understand that children go through various developmental stages of play.  Thank goodness researchers such as Westby and Strand & Brown developed play scales and research for clinicians and educators to assess and intervene with play behaviors.

Researchers have documented varied stages in play development.

During the first 9-12 months of age, a child performs more random, exploratory play.  At 15 months of age, the child develops more functional play use such as moving a car, or combing hair with a brush.  More creative, symbolic play evolvesKaren A Francioso-Howe welcoming a child into her office around 24 months of age and it is then that the child uses symbols to represent daily events.  He or she may use an object to represent another object (i.e. “stick” for a wand).  Imaginary play arrives around 30 months of age, which is an exciting part of play development.  The child uses his imagination during play.  Research from Westby (2011) cited the importance of this stage for early literacy development.  Westby noted that children do not role-play as much as they should.  She noted an increase in preschool literacy when children engage in role-play as well as literacy activities.

Strand and Brown also cited specific play behaviors as the child moves from single play actions (i.e. Feeding doll) to multi scheme play (i.e. Two or more play actions) to imaginary symbolic play.  As the child moves through these stages, there is an increase in word, phrase and sentence level production.

What can parents do to encourage play development?  Should we stop our persistence drilling letter recognition?

We can model play behaviors.  Our children learn when we play with them.  For example, if your child feeds the baby then expands on the play by feeding the baby and putting the baby to bed.  Talk about your play using short sentences.  If you child does not use the object/toy correctly, show the correct usage.

You can also set up opportunities for play behaviors to occur.   Parents can get role-play situations by playing with a toy telephone, using a fake menu for a “restaurant”, or a doctor’s kit.  As a therapist and parent, I loved reading a book and acting out the story.  Parents can discuss the characters, story sequence and ending.  Each child can have a part in the play and develop a “script”. This team effort also promotes initiation, cooperation and team work.  Children then work on literacy, play and fine-motor at the same time.  So play, play, play with your child.  Both you and your child will learn from it.  Remember, as parents you are their first teachers.

Play is fun as well as part of an assessment process.

As a speech-language pathologist, I use a play protocol whenever I complete a toddler evaluation.  I often tell my parents that this play assessment is essential for my language evaluation.  Sometimes a child’s play shows the clinician a child’s developmental level.  A clinician may need to target certain play (for example, functional play, single play episodes, or multi scheme episodes) if a child’s play is below age-level expectations.

So in conclusion, play is also so important in speech-language therapy and overall cognitive-language development.  So play, play, play……


Karen A Francioso-Howe is a pediatric speech-language pathologist who has a private practice in Easton MA. Her areas of interest include speech disorders , child language and autism/pdd. Visit her website at: A Francioso-Howe

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