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Children play by engaging in activities that are fun and enjoyable; but, play is more than just fun and games! Play is crucial to language development and provides the opportunity for children to engage and interact in the world around them. Here is a quick guide to what play skills should be expected at different ages and what language parents and adults can model during play to support development:

9 to 17 months old

  • Finding enjoyment in finding hidden objects
    • “Peak-a-boo!”
    • “Pop, pop, pop” (Jack-in-box)
  • Means-end behaviors & exploration through trial and error (e.g., Dropping objects to see what happens, pulling string toys)
    • “Uh-oh; oh no; wow!”
    • “Fall down”

17 to 22 Months Old

  • Pretend play emerges (e.g., Pretending to go to sleep or drink from a cup, bushing a doll’s hair, covering doll with blanket)
    • “Teddy is tired; Goodnight teddy; Teddy needs blanket!”
    • “Brush doll’s hair”
    • “I’m thirsty; can I have a drink?”
  • Comping two toys in pretend play
    • “Stir tea”

2 Years Old

  • Play represents daily experiences (e.g., plays house and is the baby)
    • “Knock, knock open door”
    • “Eat at table”
    • “Lights off goodnight baby”
  • Plays with short sequences (e.g., Puts food in a pan, stirs, then eats)
    • “Put the soup in the pan; Stir soup; Eat soup”
  • Plays with block towers and enjoys stacking and knocking down
    • “Block on; Big block; Blue block; Up/down!”
  • Plays with sand or water, filling, pouring and dumping
    • “Water in/out”

3 Years Old

  • More sophisticated play sequences evolve with increased use of imagination
    • “Bunny is sick! He needs to see the doctor!”
    • “Take bunny’s temperature, he has a fever!”
    • “Give bunny medicine”
  • Associative play, by engaging in a mutual activity with others
  • Play is not stimulus bound (e.g., A banana is a phone!)
    • “Ring, ring, ring… Hello who is it?”

4 Years Old

  • Problem solving in play
    • “Hmmm, this block is too big, what should we do?”
  • Using dolls or puppets to act out scenes
    • “Hi Mr. Duck, my name is Mr. Bear, let’s go to the park!”
  • Building 3-D structures to reproduce real life structures
    • “Let’s build a house, we need a chimney!”


Adapted from Carol Westby’s Wesby Play Scale, 1980