Right from the beginning, play fosters language development. When we play Peekaboo, or imitate a baby’s sounds and smiles, or ask a silly question and wait for the baby’s response, we teach the basics of communication and conversation. And the more we talk, especially in engaging, playful ways that encourage responses, the more language babies learn! Soon, they will not only be understanding and babbling, but saying words!
For toddlers who are beginning to talk, play creates opportunities to learn new words. Silly songs and movement games teach words and concepts such as body parts and opposites. Active play can involve naming places and actions. Simple pretend play, like feeding a baby doll or playing with a doctor kit or toy farm, lets children repeat what a parent, doctor, or farmer might say.
The mastery of the basics of language, which usually occurs between the ages of two and three and a half, heralds a flowering of creativity. Children build and play in imaginary worlds. They use language to pretend, be silly, ask questions, and figure things out. Their wordplay, songs, and storytelling build foundations for reading.
As preschoolers and kindergarteners, children whose language is strong are likely to be popular playmates. They tell stories that are fun to play out, and can keep conversation going. They ask interesting questions, and they can use their words to solve problems, explain their ideas, and compromise. As they play together, children build on each other’s ideas and learn new words from each other.
At every age, adults can enhance the language-building power of play. Without taking over the child’s play or turning it into a lesson, adults can build on children’s ideas. They can supply words for what children are doing and ask questions that provoke thinking. They can extend a back-and-forth conversation, playing with sounds, words, or ideas. They can take on a role and play it with humor and gusto. They can add “juicy words” – specific, interesting words like “excavator,” ”camouflage,” or “scrumptious” – that are fun to say and make play more fun.
Association for Childhood Education
National Association for the Education of Young Children
Wealth of Words
Language Develops Through Play