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For children, play is absolutely crucial for development. Even when your child is playing silently, they are learning important information that they will carry with them and use later. You can use play to help expand your child's speech and language skills.

Children learn best through play because it is fun. Children will learn best when they are interested and when they can lead the play. This means letting them choose how to start playing and then joining in the game.

You can help a child learn through play by providing the toys and opportunities, watching how they play and showing them how to play in new ways. This will help them build new skills.

Play can improve social interaction skills such as eye contact, turn taking and copying sounds and actions. It can also help develop understanding, use of language and gesture, concentration and listening and imagination.

Play can also help develop other new skills such as physical and movement skills, general learning and problem solving.

Children need to learn how to engage with, and play with people before they play with toys. Children usually, instinctively, turn to faces and voices and are far more interested in you than they are in a toy.

People play is the first kind of play that children learn to do and is fundamental for the development of interaction, communication and learning.

People games are games without toys, just involving you and the child in an easy relaxed environment where you are both enjoying each other’s company. These games work because they have a predictable and repetitive element that all young children enjoy.

The first interactions that usually make a small baby smile are tickles, soft repetitive voices with varied intonation and physical movement – so these are the strategies that we recommend using with any child who is struggling to develop their basic interaction and communication skills.

Repetitive tickle games and rough and tumble play are the best ways to encourage a child to become giddy and excited, to anticipate what is going to happen next and then to request more of the same activity.

Play games like:        

“I’m coming to get you….”

“1…2…3…tickle…”

“Ready, steady…….”

“I’m going to tickle your… nose/toes/tummy/hand”

Or raise your small child in the air, bounce them on the bed or trampoline, spin them round, and then wait and watch for their response; if they are enjoying it – they will come back for more.

Play games such as: 

Round and round the garden.

This little piggy went to market.

Peek a boo – hiding your face, pausing, and suddenly appearing 

So big – holding their hands, saying “how big is ….?”, pausing, then saying:

“soooo big” while holding their hands up high

Try to build the anticipation of the tickle or fun part, and give the child a smile or a cuddle at the end to indicate the rhyme has finished.  Repeat, repeat, repeat!  Lots of repetition of the rhyme will help the child to learn it.

When the child is familiar with the rhyme or song, build in a pause and wait.  Wait for the child to indicate that they want you to continue – this may be in the form of a look, a sound, a movement of their own or your hands, a smile. This is the child’s turn in the interaction and is the basis of turn-taking and communication with people.

Let the child lead the interaction and have fun playing with them.

This kind of play helps children to learn about the world around them. It also

  • helps children become more accepting of new sensory experiences including food
  • helps children to develop movement and coordination
  • helps children learn that they can have an effect on the things around them

Things to try:

  • Gather toys with different textures – rough and smooth, spiky, soft
  • Gather toys that are bright and shiny, or with lights
  • Gather toys that they can squeeze or shake
  • Gather toys that make sounds – musical instruments, or make shakers
  • Help the child to examine, drop and throw the toys to see what they do
  • Try messy play with things they can put in their mouths. Try different tastes and smells
  • Try messy play with crafts – make marks in sand, or paint
  • Massage feet with baby oil or moisturiser
  • Explore touch-and-feel books
  • Play with bubbles

This kind of play helps the child to learn that their actions can have an effect on something else and encourages the beginnings of problem solving.

Things to try:

  • Pop-up toys
  • Musical toys – instruments that make sounds, and toys that make music when you push a button
  • Lift the flap books
  • Building towers and knocking them down
  • Toys that you can squeeze or shake, push or pull

Give interesting reactions to actions in play e.g. every time your child drops a toy, say “uh-oh!!”

This kind of play helps develop movement and coordination. It also helps children develop their independence. Physical play is particularly good for active children, and children who struggle to concentrate.

Things to try:

  • Ball games
  • Playing at the park and at soft play
  • Hide and seek, and chasing games
  • Sing and act out action rhymes, such as row row row your boat
  • Encourage splashing in puddles, or at bathtime
  • Use push-along toys
  • Bouncing young children on your knees or rocking

This kind of play helps a child to develop hand-eye coordination and movement skills, understand how parts fit together and improve memory through practice.

It also gives a sense of achievement!

Things to try:

  • Posting
  • Stacking rings and stacking cups
  • Shape sorters
  • Jigsaws – the easiest kind are inset puzzles with pegs to hold
  • Build towers, bridges and houses out of bricks
  • Use sheets or towels with chairs to make dens
  • Put things in and out of containers and bags
  • Hide objects under cloths or bury in sand – digging them out is fun!

Creative play helps a child to develop hand movement, encourage imagination, experiment with different materials and experience feeling different textures.

Things to try:

  • Making faces with raisins
  • Cooking together - making biscuits, or icing shop-bought biscuits
  • Making faces on paper plates to make masks
  • Make collages by sticking materials on to card. You could use sweet wrappers, glitter, bottle tops, magazine pictures, string, tin foil, uncooked pasta and other food items.
  • Make pictures using paints, pens, crayons and chalks.
  • Try drawing around hands and feet.
  • Make play dough – model into shapes.
  • Make models from old food packets, tubes, containers and boxes.

Pretend play or symbolic play is important for several reasons:

  1. Developing understanding of what objects are used for.
  2. Developing the concept that a word can represent/symbolise an object just like a toy can be used to represent a real object.
  3. Developing flexible thinking and imagination.
  4. Learning about real-life situations and acting them out.
  5. Language often develops alongside pretend play.

Pretend play develops in these stages, although you may see bits of different stages at the same time.

Pretend play with real objects

This shows that a child understands what objects are and what we do with them.

  • Before drink time get out the child’s empty cup and pretend to drink from it and encourage the child to do the same, and then go ahead with drink time.
  • Collect several everyday items in a box for example, a hat, hairbrush, toothbrush, key, cup, toy phone, and blanket. Produce them one at a time, pretend to use them and encourage/help the child to do the same, for example, putting the phone to their ear, pretending to sleep with the blanket. Make appropriate symbolic noises such as a phone ringing sound or “shhh” with the blanket.
  • Once the child has learned how to use the objects themselves, encourage them to relate them to other people, for example, help the child to brush your hair.

Playing with teddies and dolls

  • Pretend to use the familiar objects on a large doll /teddy or toy character such as Peppa Pig. Help the child to do the same, you could feed teddy, brush doll’s hair, put teddy to bed, wash baby or make a teddy’s tea party. Use appropriate sounds and words such asshh, mmm, snoring noises.

Sequences of pretend play

  • Encourage the child to copy everyday activities at home such as sweeping, washing cups, cooking, washing clothes.
  • Model and encourage pretend play with everyday objects: teddy, dolly, bed, table, food, and blanket. Extend the play into short sequences of play, for example, brush doll’s hair then wash doll’s face or give teddy a cup of tea then make him go for a walk. Continue to extend these sequences as the child becomes more confident.

Small world play

  • Make the transition to small world toys such as dolls’ houses, garages or farms so that play becomes more imaginative and less dependent on the real objects.
  • Encourage the child to make small world figures or dolls interact with each other, for example, making a figure kick a football to another.
  • At first you may need to lead the play and encourage the child to join in and copy. Later, the child might start the play; if so, respond by following his lead.
  • Around this time, you can help the child start to use objects symbolically, pretending something is something else, for example, pretending a banana is a phone.

Complex symbolic play and role play

  • Make the transition to miniature toys of all sorts – dolls’ house material, matchbox cars, play people, farm and zoo animals, soldiers etc – so that real life situations can be acted out and stories can be made up
  • Extend the child’s storylines by introducing new ideas, for example, your car crashes into his car, so you get an ambulance and give him the breakdown lorry.
  • Increase the amount of spoken interaction alongside the physical interaction between the toys, for example, the police car arrives and you act out the policeman asking him, the driver, why the crash happened.
  • Increase the imaginative element, so that there is a shift away from the real to the make believe for example, dressing up games and role play such as police officer, turning empty boxes into boats, cars, houses.
  • Create opportunities for children to act out feelings and emotions, describe situations, ask questions, give instructions, and act out the real world.

Contact Us

For more information or if you have any questions please contact andrea.arnold@nhs.net

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