Why Play Really Is A Child's Work
If something is 'off' in a child's play, it could be a language or developmental issue. By Mary Burke, M.S., CCC-LP/L, Speech-Language Pathology, Advocate Lutheran General Children's Hospital.
As a pediatric speech pathologist, my work ranges from evaluating newborns’ earliest communication skills to helping young adults up to 16 years of age with their speech and language difficulties. What my colleagues and I have found is that a child’s language skills are tied very closely to his or her play skills. In fact, how a child plays relates to just about every aspect of development—physical, emotional, social, cognitive and language. This is because play is a child’s work.
Children, especially at the youngest ages, learn about themselves and the world around them by exploring their environment. The cues they receive during that exploration help to assist in their development.
Take for example, the first time a newborn rolls over. While he doesn’t understand the words his parents are speaking, their tone of voice communicates a message of encouragement, letting the child know he is doing something good. When he sees the emotional cue of a smile on his parents’ faces, he gets a lesson in happiness. The child’s social development is fostered simply through the interaction with his parents. And, his cognitive development is furthered as he learns to use various toys to aid in rolling over.
When we evaluate these young children, we want to see this type of interaction and make sure there is a developmental progression in their communication. Even at the earliest ages, back and forth communication should be taking place, such as cooing, babbling and eye contact games such as ‘peek-a-boo’.
For this reason, it is important to surround children with opportunities for interactive play in which their language development can thrive. Television and technology have their place, but they are not interactive and do not provide the cues that will aid in a child’s development.
Stages of Play
As children develop and grow, we expect them to progress through these stages of play.
Solitary (0-2 years) – This is when children play alone, interacting little with other children.
Spectator (2-2.5 years) – At this stage, a child begins to watch other children play, but will still not play with them.
Parallel (2.5-3 years) – Children begin playing alongside each other, but not together.
Associate (3-4 years) – At this point, children may begin to interact and even cooperate in their play.
Cooperative (4+ years) – Children begin to play together and experience supporting each other and conflicts. By primary school age, children often play in same gender groups.
Are Your Child’s Play Skills Where They Should Be?
Taking it a step further, we look at the play skills children exhibit to help determine if there are and/or will be language difficulties. I’ve listed some examples of what we look for at specific ages.
Up to 6 months
- Makes eye contact
- Tends to put toys and object in mouth
- Can play alone with toys and uses both hands
- Explores through the mouth and hands by touching objects
- Imitates simple facial expressions
- Copies basic movements, such as dropping an object
- Likes interactive games, such as peek-a-boo
- Can explore toys alone
- Begins to learn through trial and error, such as banging objects together to explore different sounds
- Starts to play with adults and notices other children
- Plays and 'talks' alone
18 months- 2 years
- Looks at other children playing but does not join in the play
- Likes playing with adults and playing alone
- Likes repetitive actions
2 - 3 years
- Begins to use symbols in play (a stick becomes a sword)
- Starts to exhibit “parallel play”
- Starts to transition from learning by trial and error to using reasoning skills
- Copies adults and other children
- Begins to exhibit 'imaginative' play such as talking to toys
3 - 4 years
- Recognizes shapes, letters and colors
- Solves jigsaw puzzles through mixture of thinking and trial and error
- Plays co-operatively together and take turns with other children
- Shows more reasoning skills and asking questions for instance 'why' and ‘how’.
- Exhibits more ‘imaginative’ play
4 - 6 years
- Begins to read and write
- Uses reasoning and understands experiences
- Begins to understand simple rules in games
- Plays co-operatively, taking turns and enjoying table-top games
6 - 8 years
- Enjoys playing with small groups and making up games with rules
- Enjoys playing co-operative games, but may struggle with losing
- Likes to play with children of same gender
What To Do If You Suspect An Issue
If your child is not playing typically, or if you have questions or concerns regarding your child's overall development, make sure to talk to your pediatrician and ask if your child would benefit from an evaluation by a speech-language pathologist or another developmental specialist (e.g. Developmental Pediatrician, Occupational Therapist, Physical Therapist).
Mary Burke, M.S. CCC-SLP/L, id in Speech-Language Pathology at Advocate Lutheran General Children’s Hospital