Have you ever wondered, “Is there a correlation between language development and levels of play in a young child?” Absolutely! There absolutely is a correlation between the two. As speech-language pathologists (SLPs), we get a lot of training about language development but sometimes we just get an overview of play. When we’re setting goals for our early communicators, it’s essential to remember that play is a critical part of development. Let’s talk about the research that proves it today.
There are 4 different levels of play:
- Onlooker/ Solitary Play
- Parallel Play
- Associative Play
- Cooperative Play
Onlooker/ Solitary Play
Onlooker or solitary play is basically the first stage of play. A child may play passively by themself. There is a lot of cause and effect activity happening during play. The child may watch or even converse with other children that are engaged in play activities but will continue to play solitarily. The child is observing the play of others.
During the stage of parallel play, more than one child will play alongside and next to one another but not with each other. They may play with similar equipment but do not join in each others play at this stage.
During the third stage of play called associative play, more than one child will play with the same type of equipment and communicate during this play. However, they do not play together.
Cooperative play is the final stage of play that we try to encourage all children to be at usually by the end of their kindergarten year for a typical child. Cooperative play means more than one child will play together for a common goal or purpose. Children take charge of their play in this cooperative play stage and even assign roles to each other for pretend play.
How are Language and Play Correlated?
Symbolic play is highly correlated to language development. This means that the better the child’s ability to play representationally, the better the child’s language skills develop. There is also emerging evidence to support symbolic play as having a seminal relationship to language.
Play & Language Develop at Similar Timelines
•Correlations have been found between play and language development. Children with disabilities who showed higher levels of communication skills demonstrated more pretend and symbolic play than children who showed lower levels of communication skills (Pizzo & Bruce, 2010).
•Barton and Wolery (2010) found that as preschool children progressed through an intervention to develop their play skills, their vocalizations also increased. This effect occurred even though vocalizations were not prompted or reinforced throughout the play intervention.
•Longitudinal studies by Lifter and Bloom (1989) demonstrated that similar transitions in play and language emerge at the same time. For example, the emergence of constructing relationships between objects in play coincided with the emergence of first words. In addition, the vocabulary spurt occurred when children were learning specific relations between objects in play, such as using a toy spoon to feed a doll. Furthermore, they found that these developments occurred simultaneously despite the variability in chronological ages at which the children reached these developmental points.
Why Work on Language through Play?
There has been a ton of research done on this topic that proves why working on language through play is very effective. The National Association for the Education of Young Children states that:
Play promotes key abilities that enable children to learn successfully. In high-level dramatic play, the collaborative planning of roles and scenarios and the impulse control required to stay within the play’s constraints develop children’s self-regulation, symbolic thinking, memory, and language. These are capacities that are critical to later learning, social competence, and school success.
Besides embedding significant learning in play, routines, and interest areas, strong programs also provide a carefully planned curriculum that focuses children’s attention on a particular concept or topic.
Some more of my favorite nuggets about play:
•Play provides an environment in which children frequently use language (Hart & Risley, 1975; Lifter & Bloom, 1998).
•Girolametto et al. (1997) found that toddlers’ communication improved during a “free play interaction,” an intervention program aimed to enhance parent communication with their toddlers with language delays.
•Hemmeter et al. (1996) found an increase in preschoolers’ communication when teachers applied a language intervention within “play activities.” These findings support the use of play as a language-learning context.
Recommended Reading on Language & Play:
•Barton E. E., Wolery M. (2010). Training teachers to promote pretend play in young children with disabilities. Exceptional Children, 77(1), 85–106.
•Girolametto L., Pearce P., Weitzman E. (1997). Interactive focused stimulation for toddlers with expressive vocabulary delays. Journal of Speech and Hearing Research, 39, 1274–1283.
•Hart B., Risley T. (1975). Incidental teaching of language in the pre-school. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 8, 411–420.
•Hemmeter M. L., Ault M., Collins B., Meyer S. (1996). The effects of teacher implemented language instruction within free time activities. Education and Training in Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities, 31, 203–212.
•Lifter K., Bloom L. (1989). Object knowledge and the emergence of language. Infant Behavior and Development, 12, 395–423.
•Lifter K., Bloom L. (1998). Intentionality and the role of play in the transition to language. In A. Wetherby, S. Warren, & J. Reichle (Eds.), Transitions in prelinguistic communication (Vol. 7, pp. 161–196). Baltimore, MD: Brookes.
•Lifter, Karin, et al. “Overview of play: Its uses and importance in early intervention/early childhood special education.” Infants & Young Children24.3 (2011): 225-245.
•National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) (2009). Position statement: Developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood programs serving children from birth through age 8. Retrieved from http://www.naeyc.org/positionstatements/dap
•Pizzo L., Bruce S. M. (2010). Language and play in students with multiple disabilities and visual impairments or deaf-blindness. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 104(5), 287–297.
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