How Play Skills Lead to Language


As we mentioned in the last blog post, appropriate play skills are the foundation for socializing and language. Children learn how to pay attention, problem solve, complete activities, try

new things, plan, and remember through play. These skills form your child's cognition (thinking skills that develop how they translate and relate to the world around them). That means that when you are playing with your child you are not only bonding with them, but you are building up their foundational skills for life. What a great thing!

There are certain play skills children must develop before they can have the cognitive capacity to learn language. These include shifting attention between things and people, taking turns, playing with toys appropriately (stacking blocks or running a car on the ground), following directions with toys, etc. There is actually a sequence of pre-requisite cognitive skills that most children develop before words emerge (exceptions for select disorders where there is a difference in developmental progression, such as Autism Spectrum Disorder).

This sequence is below:

1. Reacts to environment - turns to loud sound or someone speaking

2. Responds to people when they talk to or play with her - looks when name is called, enjoys interactions with others

3. Takes turns with another person during interactions - takes turns stacking toys, banging drum, etc.

4. Develops an attention span - stays with an activity for at least 5 minutes alone and even longer with adults

5. Shifts and shares joint attention with others - looks at you, then at an object, then back to you to share attention

6. Plays with a variety of toys appropriately - plays well with toys and uses familiar objects in routines

7. Understands early words and follows simple directions - follows many different 1-step directions (i.e., "take your shoes off" or "get the cup")

8. Vocalizes or makes sounds purposefully - babbles, uses his voice to get your attention

9. Imitates actions, gestures, sounds, and words - copies clapping, giggling, blowing raspberries, hiding her face, etc.

10. Uses early gestures like waving and pointing - communicates non-verbally

11. Initiates interactions with others to get needs met or to engage in play - works to get your attention for wants/needs (ex., pulls on your pants to get you to follow him to the pantry and reaches/vocalizes "eh-eh" for desired food)


(This list is from Laura Mize, MS CCC-SLP, at teachmetotalk.com, with examples added)


These all occur before children even start to talk! And they are taught through PLAY and joint interaction with a caregiver or another little person. For instance, you teach turn-taking when playing "Peek-a-Boo," "Hide-n-Seek," and passing a ball. You teach imitation of actions with "Patty Cake." How amazing that children's little brains are hard-wired to pick up these thinking skills in their first year of life!


We take these skills for granted, especially when children don't start talking. We immediately think they need to be using their words. However, if a child past the age of 1 is not yet talking, we need to look at this list of skills and see what they have and have not mastered. If they are not yet gesturing, they can't learn words. Children learn how to refer to a specific item and use communication to get wants/needs met with gesturing. Additionally, if they are not yet babbling or imitating sounds, they can't use words one their own. They have to learn how to produce the sounds first before putting them together to make a word. Once children have mastered these pre-requisite skills, they can understand how to use language for themselves (e.g. Saying 'up' to get lifted up or 'more' to get more of their desired food).


If you want more in-depth information on how play skills lead to language or have specific questions about the pre-requisites for words, feel free to email hello@tandytherapy.com.


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Tandy Therapy LLC

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Email: hello@tandytherapy.com

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