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Let's play!

Did you know that play and language are closely linked? Usually, children’s first words tend to develop at about the same time that they start playing pretend games.

Pretend play is also known as ‘symbolic play’ because it uses symbols. A symbol is when something stands for something else. Play and language are both symbolic. For example, with a bit of imagination, a box can change from a container to put things in, to becoming a car for a teddy or even a washing machine!

Play helps children to develop their symbolic thinking which is so important in the development of language and communication. When learning to talk we learn that each specific string of sounds (e.g. c-u-p) makes a word (cup) and each word has a meaning (item we drink from). The words we use stand for our thoughts and ideas.

Here's some more reasons why we love to encourage symbolic play:

Play is a brilliant way for your child to learn new words. We can repeat words and actions more often in play activity than we do during our daily lives. For example, we can’t pour juice ten times at actual teatime, but we can spend hours pouring water, having a pretend tea party, or singing “This is the way we pour our juice”.

Pretend play allows children to learn more unusual words that they might not hear in everyday life. For example words like dragon, rescue, pirate or zookeeper. The possibilities in pretend play are endless – enjoy being creative together!

Play can include many of the senses. Children are more likely to learn and remember what we’re talking about when they can see, hear, feel, smell and taste it.

Play helps children to build the important social and turn-taking skills needed to relate to and work alongside other people. Building these skills will help prepare your child for nursery and school, and support them in forming friendships with others.

Play helps children to understand another person’s perspective which helps to develop empathy and understanding of emotions.

Play is easy to respond to, even without words. The active side of play like doing the actions to “If you’re happy and you know it” gives children who have trouble talking a chance to take part. Play also helps children connect physical actions with the words that describe those actions.

Play is the way children learn about the world around them and practice new skills in a safe environment.

Lastly and most importantly… play is fun!

Your healthcare professional can give you advice on supporting your child’s play. Supporting play can be a stepping stone to encouraging gestures and signs, first words and then later to more advanced words and sentences. 

We’ve got lots more blogs on play here.

You can also get lots of information on language on our support and advice pages

And you can visit our Speech and Language Therapy service pages here.

About the author

Catherine Oram, Speech and Language Therapist