Some things are just better together. Wine and cheese, peanut butter and jelly, peas and carrots, Monday mornings and coffee. Well, you might say that Monday morning and coffee must go together or Monday morning just infant going to happen! Play and language is like the Monday morning and coffee for kids- better together and-in so many ways,-an absolutely essential partnership. , In my last post I talked about how essential it is to support child-led, engaging, and emotionally meaningful learning interactions with kids to build lasting skills. This post will add to this simple but monumental principle by exploring the powerful relationship between language and one of the most child-led, engaging, and emotionally meaningful experiences in a child’s daily life- play.
The strong link between play and language development (a two-way Street) has been well-documented in child development literature, as has the biological and psychological necessity for play, not only for children, but also for adults. But in the day-to-day of a child’s life, what does this actually look like and why is it so important? To explore these really important questions, let’s consider a few main components of meaningful and enriching play: sensation, relation, representation, and imitation.
When children are engaged in play, they are receiving an amazing amount of rich information through all of their senses. It is through sensory experiences in the earliest stages of childhood that kids begin to make sense of the world around them. They watch play partners and examine the objects and environments around them. From these observations, they will begin to learn the words associated with what they see. They listen to the sounds that toys and materials make, as well as the sounds and language of their peer and adult play partners. Over time, these auditory experiences will help them learn to combine speech sounds and tone to engage in communication and relationship. They move their bodies as they play, sending valuable proprioceptive information to the brain. Sensing their presence in the environment and experiencing the pressure and levity in rough- and-tumble play not only improves movement, but also lays additional framework for relating to others and understanding concepts and language ( like fast, gentle, and tickle, for example). Children touch and manipulate different textures and temperatures during play, lending even more scaffolding to the development of language concepts and fostering strong fine motor skills. Each of these sensory elements enrich the learning experience and many lay emotional groundwork to help the child decide if an experience or interaction is pleasurable (and therefore, worth repeating) or aversive (and therefore, best avoided). Pleasure is the key to engagement and motivation for many of us as adults and this rings even louder in truth for young children who are not yet driven by the cognitive, inner voice that says “I know you don’t like doing that, but it’s really good for you if you do it anyway!” Think going to the gym, cutting down on coffee…. you get it.
Interactive play- with or without toys or props- builds a child’s ability to relate to others in so many ways. Given the intermingled nature of relationship and communication (including language) it is no surprise that interactive play, especially with adult partners, is a powerful stage upon which to build language. The pleasure principle is also at play here in keeping the momentum of learning opportunities going in interactive play as sone of the most emotionally pleasurable play experiences happen when children share laughs, tickles, and exciting movements and events during social play with caregivers and friends.
Another element of relation present in play involves learning how toys and props relate to one another and how these relationships can be flexible. During pretend play, children are using the sorting, comparing, and reasoning skills with toys and play themes that they will use later to organize words and understand how they relate to one another to change the meaning of a message. Children learn flexible thinking as one object can be many different props in the pretend theme. This “symbolism”-where a block can be a block, and then a rocket ship, and then a cookie at a picnic-mirrors the development of symbolic communication (language) in which a word stands for a thing, or an action. It is here that communication can begin to represent experiences outside of the here and now.
As we introduced above, mental imagery and the ability to use one thing to represent another thing (symbolic thinking) are big concepts in the pretend play of young children that persist throughout childhood. Symbolic representation is at the core of language- language doesn’t develop without this cognitive skill and play is the context in which these skills are introduced and refined.
Imitation is where kids really start putting it all together. All of those sensations and observations, all of those awesome interactions with caregivers and friends start turning their wheels more and more and they are motivated to give things a try for themselves. The power of engaging play interactions to motivate imitation skills is incredible! Imitation is the “practice” component of learning at the earliest stages of a child’s development of a skill like speech, for example. She will imitate your words, you will “throw a party” and model it again, she will do it again, and so on. The stuff that language is made of!
In the words of the late Fred Rogers “play is the work of childhood” and it can happen anywhere, anytime, with everyone. Parents, seize these powerful moments with your kids. Professionals, prioritize play as a modality in your practice and support caregivers in their own learning process.
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How do you support the play and language connection for your child, student, or client? Contribute to the teaching by starting a conversation in the comments of this post!