The Importance of Play

Play is the language of children. Through play, children learn so much. They learn to problem-solve, to communicate, to regulate emotions, and to think creatively. Play-based speech therapy is when an SLP plans speech and language therapy activities around a play activity or toy, to engage the child. The SLP creates opportunities for the child to practice the target skill or goal area, while engaged in a motivating play activity.

Speech and language therapy sessions can be designed in many different ways. Play-based therapy is a common approach for children under the age of 5 but can be used with children of all ages. 

When you first hear that your child will engage in play-based therapy activities, you may ask how is this different from their regular play? How will this approach help with their language development? To answer those questions, it is important to understand the role of play in language development. It also helps to understand the stages and types of play. Think of play-based therapy tasks as playful learning.

Stages of Play

Children move through various stages of play as part of their development. The stages below are general guidelines for play development and ages are approximate. All children develop differently, so talk to your pediatrician or SLP if you have concerns with your child’s play skills. 

  • Stage 1, Solitary play: When children play by themselves and do not appear aware of or interested in other children playing. (0-2 years)
  • Stage 2, Onlooker play: Includes watching and observing. Depending on the age of the child, they may also ask questions, but not engage in the play they are observing. (2-2 ½ years)
  • Stage 3, Parallel play: When children play near others while not engaging with others. They may pay attention to other children and their play, but do not interact. Sometimes but not always playing similar games/activities. (2-3 years)
  • Stage 4, Associate Play: This stage includes playing with others, sometimes playing by oneself, and occasional cooperation. Children in this stage start to ask questions of others and may have similar goals. But their play does not follow any set rules. (3-4 years)
  • Stage 5, Cooperative or Social play: This is when children begin to share ideas and their play has set rules. It has also been described as a stage in which a child will play with others and will not continue to play by oneself. (4 ½ to 6 years)

In addition to the stages of play development, there are also different types of play. These include the following:

  • Functional play – Functional play includes investigating how common objects work and are used
  • Construction play – This type of play involves building things with objects (ex. Legos, blocks)
  • Gameplay with rules – This type of play includes things such as board games that have a clear set of rules for playing (ex. Candy Land, Cariboo)
  • Outdoor and movement play – These are play activities that involve physical movement (ex. hopscotch, basketball, jump rope)
  • Symbolic, dramatic, and pretend play – This includes common activities from everyday life, imitated/acted out as play (ex. kitchen, zoo, vet, or doctor)

Planning a play-based therapy session:

Play-based therapy is most often thought of as targeting early language goals. However play-based therapy can target receptive and expressive language, speech sound production, and pragmatic language for children of all ages. When planning a play-based therapy session consider the following:

  • Think about the required targets/goal areas. If you are targeting initial /k/ for example, be sure that you have play-based materials that use this sound (ex. birthday cake, cars, cows). Remember that, to be play-based, you must include play! So be prepared to be flexible and find ways to include a variety of targets.
  • Make your play episodic and story-like, to scaffold memories. If children can reenact the play or talk about it later, then they rehearse the same targets/goal areas. Thus increasing the chance for carryover.
  • You also want to be providing memorable targets in play. If a child can remember the language you modeled, this allows for later recall and rehearsal.
  • Allowing the child to take the lead as much as possible will increase interest and motivation and allow the play to feel natural.
  • Avoid directives such as ‘Say…’. Model the language targets and goal areas, and provide wait time for the child to imitate.
  • Find toys that are motivating and interesting to the child you are working with. Interest and participation will increase if the toy/play is motivating.
  • Repeat play activities across sessions. This allows for more rehearsal of targets/goal areas.
  • Present more than one play/toy option, to allow for varied targets and allow the child to make choices.
  • Remember that some children have difficulty with transitions. A timer and/or visual schedule can support transitioning away from play.

What parents can do at home

Much like a play-based therapy session, parents can also facilitate play at home to enhance their language skills. During play with your child, allow your child to take the lead as much as possible. Avoid using terms such as ‘say this’ or ‘use your words.’ Instead, model appropriate language. When your child attempts communication, recast their words appropriately. Model the task you want your child to complete. Above all make play fun to focus on engagement and participation! If your child enjoys play, they are more likely to repeat the activity and the language involved.

Cocoa Berry
Author: Cocoa Berry