Developing skills through play

Play is the single most important medium through which young children develop their skills and knowledge.  

It is not enough to just let our children play alone or with each other. We need to find time to play with them, so we can encourage discovery, learning and fun.  

Play has been described as a child’s “work” and during the early years, a child’s brain is developing, making connections and creating a network of skills that are built on throughout their lives. 


There are four main stages of play development 

Solitary Play starts in infancy. Babies are constantly exploring their surroundings by sight, smell, touch and taste. They play alone or near others, but are not paying attention to others, as they are so absorbed in their own discoveries. 

Parallel Play is where children play alongside other children with similar toys, but don’t often interact with them. They may copy what other children do, but not start any conversations. This is common in toddlers. 

Associative Play is the third stage and usually happens when children are three or four years old. At this stage, children will play and talk together, but are not working together to plan an activity. 

Cooperative Play is seen when children are four or five yours old. At this stage children are developing social and emotional development and are able to play together and work towards shared goals. They start to learn that they have to ask permission to share toys and to discuss problems. 

What does play have to do with language development? 

Play involves listening and talking about what you are doing. 

Play involves lots repetition and repetition helps a child to learn. 

Play helps children learn core communication skills, including eye contact, body language and gestures. 

Play uses all the senses, so children taste, touch, smell and feel objects, which helps them to learn vocabulary more easily. 

What should I do whilst we are playing? 

Try not to ask too many questions. The goal of play is for children to learn language and skills – not to be tested.  

Imagine yourself trying to learn a foreign language. You would find it much easier if people labelled things whilst you were using them, rather than constantly being asked questions which you couldn’t answer.  

So instead of asking “What are you doing?”, “What colour is it?”, “Where does that go?”, label or describe objects e.g. “I see a red car. It’s going fast.” 


Points to remember when playing with your child 

Follow your child’s lead and play with what he is interested in. 

Use short, simple sentences, so he can copy them easily. 

Don’t feel you have to talk about everything he touches. Leave space for him to talk back to you. 

Repeat words and phrases often. Children love repetition and even though you might find it dull, your child will enjoy the familiarity of hearing words and phrases over and over. 

Make your voice interesting. Children love hearing voices that change in pitch and include silly sounds. 

Useful strategies 

Parallel Talk – Talk about what your child is doing, seeing or hearing whilst they are playing e.g. “You have a car.” “You are throwing the ball”. Try to emphasise the key words in your sentences. 

Descriptive Talk – Talk about what your child is playing with e.g. The ball is green. The ball is bouncing.” etc. 

Self Talk – Talk about what you are doing while your child is watching you play. e.g. “I’m putting on my hat.”, “I’m jumping up and down” etc.  

One of the most important things to remember is to have fun! 

Children know if you are not enjoying playing with them or are distracted by time constraints or interruptions. Try to schedule a time each day to play with your child and switch off your phone , so you can give your child your full attention. 

Difficulty playing with toys or other children, may be a red flag for speech and language difficulties or other learning challenges. If a child appears to be struggling with learning how to play or shows no interest in playing with toys or people, it is wise to discuss this with your physician, who will then refer you to a speech and language therapist. Alternatively, you can contact a speech and language therapist directly and make an appointment to evaluate your child.  

Your speech and language therapist will then be able to discuss your child’s strengths and weaknesses and create a therapy plan to help you guide your child to play and communicate more effectively.  


Roz Griffiths is a registered and qualified speech and language therapist [email protected]