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Play Talk


Tuesday 01 September 2020

David Crystal describes learning a first language as “…… the most complex skill anyone ever learns. And this task needs to be virtually complete by the time a child reaches school age.” Learning a language is hard work but made easier by the fact that we have so much fun doing it - it is no coincidence that language learning occurs during the most play focused period in our lives.

So, let’s look at the relationship between play and learning to communicate:

Positive interactions - the key to positive interactions is to let children lead play and to build on their interests. We can do this by:

  • Getting face to face
  • Waiting to see what is interesting the child
  • Listening to the message - what is the child telling us in actions or words.
  • Commenting on where interests lie and “say what he would if he could” - that is, when a child is looking at something, he needs you to give the words he is missing - not ask him for the word. Too many questions can stop conversations because it feels like you are ‘testing’ the child. A true and genuine question can only be asked when you don’t know the answer!

What is the link between play and language?

We all know the stages of play, so let’s look at how some stages link to language learning.


Exploratory Play - Babies initially put everything into their mouths. Through exploring the object with you, it helps their understanding of what it is and what we do with it. Being able to play with a real object is an important step for learning language. The first information about an object is to know what it is and how we use it. Then we learn it has a name and that name triggers information. We need this information or “hook” to recognise and understand the sound we hear to match this hook. So, when I say the word “cat” none of you pictured an ice cream cone - I hope! There are stages within exploratory play including exploring objects and situations, recognising objects in a context, (e.g. the fridge door opening means a bottle is coming, the water in the bath means bath time) and using everyday objects on themselves and others, (e.g. brushing their own and mum’s hair - not pretending just using). The child’s communication is developing along with his play, so initially there is no intent in his vocalisations but he will begin to use his body and voice in anticipation of something about to happen - e.g. they get excited before the food arrives or before you say “boo” in a peek a boo game.

Large Doll Play  - this type of play develops at about 16 – 26 months and comes after the child has explored objects and is beginning to show some pretend play - they pretend to drink from an empty cup or feed from an empty spoon. At this level of play we might expect the first words to come. Around this stage the child recognises dolls or teddies represent real people and can pretend to feed, wash, and love them and we hear more and more single words emerging. This is a very important step; the ability to recognise that an object can represent something, leads to the knowledge that a sound/word can also represent something else. We hear the sounds we say and can then add the meaning of those sounds to understand each other.

Small World Play - At around 18 months a child begins to recognise miniature toys as representing real objects. This stage is crucial for the child’s readiness to understand more abstract ideas and recognising more symbols - the ultimate symbols are words. There can be a delay between what a child understands and what a child says. This can be a six-month gap so parents are often amazed at the words their children say out of nowhere but in fact they may have been learnt and stored months earlier. A child at this stage learns to act out routines and when they can sequence their play, they begin to join words to make short sentences. This further develops the child, explaining verbally or non-verbally what he is about to do in his play and coincides with the child beginning to use longer and more complex sentences.

Pretend Play - Pretend play helps a child to experiment by being different characters and exploring how people feel and what they say. They learn how to understand other people and so improve their ability to socialise and develop the thinking and reasoning skills they will need for the rest of their lives. This is often seen as the stage at which they begin to play with and not beside each other. Their language is becoming more complex as they plan, deliver, and negotiate play with each other.


Play is an essential tool in learning to talk. So, when you next observe a child whose language development appears slow to develop, take time to look at their stage of play development and support their play through the stages above.

There is not adequate space to cover all I wish to share around positive interactions and their impact on play and the impact of play on how children learn language. If you are interested in further reading, I would highly recommend the references below.

The Elklan Let’s Talk Handouts give a useful explanation of how the pieces of the puzzle fit together as to how language and play are linked. Through playing and adults talking, the child hears the word which goes with the object numerous times. This means the child can add two vital pieces to the puzzle for each word in his mind:  If I hear ‘brush’ it means that bushy thing that is put through my hair and I will remember that the more often I hear it. So, the first words children say are words they hear most often. Also, when I see mum or dad saying that word I can imitate and get the instructions I must send to my mouth to say “brush”. So, a child learns miniature toys represent real things (18 months) and now sounds/words represent real things (15 – 18 months) and that is when first words typically are emerging.



The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of language, David Crystal, Cambridge University Press, 1987

ELKLAN Source of Information : - Early Language Builders

HANEN Resources:- Play Articles :- Play and Language         

                                               General: -Interaction and Language


BIO: Patricia Curtis is a Speech & Language Therapist who works both in her own private practice and part time for the HSE. She qualified in the 1980’s and has experience in a variety of countries and roles since that time.

In her private practice she has developed a specific interest in working with early years settings, schools and organisations in supporting Language Rich Environments by training and encouraging parents and educators to be child led and responsive to the learning needs, as identified by the children, when following the curriculum. She lectures in UCD and NUIM and has worked closely with Early Childhood Ireland, Better Start, NEYAI project - (Ballyfermot Partnership), numerous Childcare Committees and Teacher organisations around Ireland since her return from the UK in 2006.

She is a qualified Hanen Tutor since the 1990s and is especially interested in the Learning Language and Loving it/Teacher Talk programmes which offer adult training and video feedback. She is a qualified ELKLAN and ICAN Tutor and has offered a variety of individually designed and commercial programmes to support settings in encouraging all children to communicate. 

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