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Play and Social Skills

Hello all!

Previously, I spoke of one of the key areas of the foundation of language development: attention and listening skills. The next key area I would like to discuss is play and its role in language and communication development.

As children begin to engage with and learn from the environment around them, they start to use play to explore and experiment with these new things. Play helps children throughout their early learning and to become confident learners. Play facilitates children in learning to interact with others, experiencing and managing their feelings, and in supporting their confidence about themselves and their abilities. All children develop these skills at varying rates, but the general development of play and social skills are as follows:


  • Explores objects by mouthing/feeling
  • Enjoys imitation games (peak-a-boo, etc.)
  • Explores objects – feeling, touching, banging
  • Begins to relate objects (e.g., builds tower, puts objects in a box)
  • Can play alone, but likes to be near a familiar adult

2-3 years

  • Begins to use simple pretend play and imitate daily activities (e.g., puts teddy to bed, cooks dinner)
  • Enjoys cause and effect toys (e.g., toys that light up, shakers)
  • Interested in others’ play and may join in their play briefly
  • Can have a conversation, jumping from topic to topic

3-4 years

  • Can string together sequences of actions
  • Will play pretend games with other children (e.g., going shopping)
  • May take role of another person in play (e.g., teacher or an animal)
  • Can plan ahead (e.g., building a house with Duplo)

4-5 years

  • Can engage in more complex pretend play activities
  • Develops close friendships with other children
  • Is easily able to take turns, initiate conversations, and share
  • Shows concern for others

5-6 years

  • Able to play games with rules
  • Builds elaborate structures with blocks
  • Continues to develop pretend play using language and props
  • Can work as part of a group
  • Forms good relationships with adults and peers

Play can help children to develop these skills:

  • Willingness to explore and give things a go
  • Being able to seek and ask for help
  • Problem solving and finding solutions
  • Sustaining interest in a challenging task
  • Decision making
  • Carrying out plans that they make themselves
  • Paying and working collaboratively with other children and adults
  • Resilience: finding alternative strategies if things don’t always go as planned
  • Understanding others perspectives and emotions

Strategies to Develop Play and Social Skills

Adults who interact with children in particular ways to enhance their development is a crucial ingredient in children making good progress. Here are some strategies for you to support your child’s play:

Play on your Child’s level
Get down face-to-face, this might mean you are sat or lying on the floor. Get in a position where your child can see your eyes and your face.

Follow your Child’s lead in play
Watch what your child is doing or playing with and then join in with their play. Wait, look, and listen for their initiation of communication. This might be a point, handing you something, a noise, or a word. Expand on their communication by adding a word. So, if you are handed a block by your child, you could say, “block!” and copy how they are using the bricks.

Taking turns
Turn taking is an important skill for children to develop. Try to take turns to race a car, to put a block on a tower, or to blow bubbles. Turn taking in play is the start of children being able to take part in a conversation, when we talk we take turns to talk and to listen.

Use simple language
Try to name objects that your child is looking at, pointing to, holding, or playing with. You could also name actions that your child is doing, such as, jumping or running. It’s important to use lots of repetition with children, so, don’t worry about commenting the same words as much as you can.

Turn questions into comments
Children are asked so many questions throughout their day. At times, we need to ask questions, but during play, see if you can make those questions into comments. This better facilitates their language learning.

For example:

  • ‘What have you got there?’ -> ‘Bus! Beep beep, you have a bus!’
  • ‘Do you like your snack?’ -> ‘Mmm, yummy banana’
  • ‘What’s that, is it a fire truck?’ -> ‘Wow! It’s a fire truck!’

Expand on their language

If your child says ‘teddy’ then you can expand on this and say back, ‘teddy jump’.

If your child says ‘teddy jump’ then you can say, ‘teddy is jumping on the bed’.

Keep adding on words to what your child has said. If they say one word (e.g. ‘more’), model back two words (e.g. ‘more milk’). We can add lots of different words action words (sleep, jump, run, build). If your child is using 2 or 3 word phrases, add describing words e.g. big/little, hot/cold etc.

You may notice that you are already naturally using these strategies during play with your child, which is wonderful! Hopefully this post has shown a glimpse into how strategies like these can influence your child’s language development and the importance of play. In the next post, I will discuss strategies behind developing the understanding of language.

Marissa Perez

Linguistic Specialist

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