When watching young children play, what typically goes through your mind as a parent? Maybe you are happy because they are happy. Or maybe you wonder why they find the simple acts of banging on a drum, pretending to cook, or crashing cars so enjoyable. What about when you want them to follow your directions and instead they are pretending to be a dinosaur for the 57th time today? Then it may not be so easy to see the good in it. Well, we here at the Speech and Career Center know that play is just about the greatest gift God has given children to learn and develop language. You may think that your child is just being silly with their toys, but us speech therapists see so many new opportunities for language development lurking right under the surface. Those drums your child is banging; how about imitating drumming to a song, drumming ‘soft’ or drumming ‘LOUD’, ‘fast’ or ‘s l o w’? That plastic food your child won’t stop actually putting in their mouth; how about practicing ‘eat, more, yum, yuck, clean, all done’, talking about foods, saying colors, or cooperating to feed another toy? Those crashing cars; how about ‘stop, go, up, down, beep, vroom, crash, fast, slow’? As you can see, play gives some fantastic opportunities to teach new words and practice ones that we already know. And your creativity is the limit!
Another benefit, play takes the pressure and frustration out of the communication process. There are times when we all quiz our children and give them directives; ‘Share.’, ‘What is this?’, ‘What sound does a pig make?’ ‘Sit down.’. While these types of communication are good and necessary, they are not the only tool in our toolbelt to help our little ones grow. What a wonderful opportunity play provides us to talk about what our child is already doing instead of demanding their attention elsewhere. Playtime means that we get to talk about what our child likes. This in turn means we know we have shared attention and we can use words and sounds that fit the topic.
Finally, play gives the opportunity to practice the social side of language development. Learning that it’s fun and rewarding to interact with other humans is an essential part of communication. And from there the building blocks of joint attention, imitation, eye contact, turn taking, making sounds, and other pre-language skills are built.
Bottom line: never underestimate the importance of play in your child’s development. For children, play is their work. Do not be afraid to notice their interests and participate in them! And keep it light! Let your love for your child and your shared enjoyment guide you on what to play next. God has given children wonderful (and often stubborn) little minds, and sometimes they just need space to play with a trusted friend.