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When you see your child playing with their favorite toys on the living room floor, something beautiful is happening. Children use play to creatively explore and interact with their environment while they learn and grow. And it’s not just a sweet pastime. Play is an essential aspect of a child’s development! Play has numerous benefits for a child across developmental areas including language, cognition, gross/fine motor skills and more.

While many children may be excellent at playing on their own, it is equally important that the adults in a child’s life participate actively in their play schemas. Not only can it be an opportunity to strengthen the bond with your child, it can also help them expand their language and cognitive skills. However, knowing “how to play” is something that many adults view as a daunting task. Play can be wonderfully simple or excitingly complex. When approaching play with your child, here are some essential aspects to keep in mind. Don’t be overwhelmed, play can be as easy as: ABC!

A: Act it out

  • Try to physically act out all the actions of your play schema and map those actions onto the language you are using. For example, if you are with a cooking set with your child, take some food on your own and show “COOK COOK food” while you are pretending to cook. Maybe it is too hot at first so you say “TOO hot!” while you pretend to blow on it to cool in down. Then say “EAT EAT the food” while pretending to take a bite. That short play sequence modeled language and actions together so that your child has a concrete referent for those terms.
  • Then after acting out sequences in play, you can use similar actions and language to generalize to everyday life such as cooking and eating dinner or driving your car to school!

B: Be Creative

  • Functional use of toys in play is a first step in development for young children. So it is important to model use of toys how they are functionally used such as using a play telephone to “call someone”.
  • BUT there is more to play!! The next steps to move towards more complex play following functional use of toys, is using props and toys in a non-literal way so that the objects aren’t tied to their intended function. This aspect of play is fun and meant to be silly and creative. Think of ways you can use toys flexibly in different ways.
  • Some see a bowl but I see: a drum, a pool, a bath tub, a hat, a landing pad for a helicopter and an aquarium habitat for penguins! The possibilities are endless! This aspect of play is not only fun but can practical for many families as you can use one toy in 10+ ways with just a bit of creativity.

C: Comment on your own play

  • Narrating your own play is a strategy to encourage expressive language use and expand vocabulary in young children. But comments and reactions about your own experience are important too. A comment of “WOW” when something exciting happens in play carries essential meanings for a child. The comment models your emotion, intonation and reciprocal reactions in play. Use positive comments: “wow”, “yay”, “cool”, “awesome”, “ooo” and negative comments: “oh no!”, “ooops!”, “aww man” to verbally and visually share your reactions.
  • These comments are intended to be models for your child of ways that they can interact with play. There shouldn’t be any expectations on the child to have to do anything in these moments. When you make a comment “WOW” they don’t have to repeat it back…of course unless they want to! Comments are effective as authentic/in the moment reactions so prompting your child to “you say wow!” will not likely generalize to naturalistic opportunities. Modeling these comments for your child gives them more options in their “tool box” to use to express themselves during play.