Play is often seen as something ‘trivial’ and just a source of good fun for children. When in fact, I’d argue the opposite, play is the most important way that young children can learn. Not only is play the mechanism of how children learn, but by being enjoyable play engages children in learning much more effectively than other methods. Play can help children to develop a whole range of skills from fine motor and gross motor skills to speech, language and communication skills (SLCN). For example, that child rolling and squishing play dough in a reception class, isn’t just having lots of fun. Look closer and you’ll see that they are developing their fine motor skills that will help them learn to write. And when their friend asks to play with it, they are practicing their social skills and speech, language and communication skills to negotiate effectively why they want to keep it.

How Can We Help Children Develop Their Speech, Language and Communication Skills During Play?

There are countless ways that we as professionals can help children to develop their speech, language and communications skills during play. Many of which we probably do without even realising. But it’s important to reflect on the ways we support SLCN to see if there is anything more we could be doing to help. Here are some examples:

1. Follow Their Lead

Let children be in charge of their own free play by choosing the activity or toy that they are interested in playing with. Not only does this allow for happier play but the chances are that the child will be more engaged and therefore more likely to use their speech, language and communication skills when playing. For example, if you have a child who is interested in dinosaurs, you will probably find you get a lot more language ‘out of them’ when they are playing with dinosaurs! They may be keen to share their knowledge on the types of dinosaurs, which ones were meat eaters, where they lived etc. This is because they have more to talk about! It’s the same for grown-ups too, if we are participating in something that we know a lot about or enjoy doing regularly, we are likely to be much chattier with the people around us.

2. Model and Expand

When children are playing, we can help to develop their speech, language and communication skills by both modelling language and expanding vocabulary. Modelling would be where whilst playing you talk about the activity or act out being the characters – showing children words and sentences that they could use. For example, if some children are playing pretend post offices together, you could use sentences such as ‘Hello, I would like to post a letter please’ and ‘how much will it cost to post this letter?’. By providing examples you are helping children to think of things to say and allowing opportunities for them to practise their skills. Expanding vocabulary is another easy way to help develop children’s speech, language and communication skills. This would be when you repeat the child’s sentence or word back to them whilst adding additional words to the sentence. For example, if a child is building a tower and they say ‘tower big’ you could say ‘yes, the tower is very big and tall’.

3. Provide New Experiences

New experiences can be incredibly powerful for developing speech, language and communication skills. If we first think about this as an adult, when we go somewhere new or see something different – we often come back bursting with things we want to say and stories we want to retell! This is the same for children and it’s our job to enable these new experiences. Now, I’m definitely not suggesting we need school trips to new and exciting places every week! By experiences, I mean anything different for them to experience themselves. This could be an imaginative play activity you set up or an activity in the school field. For example, something as simple as going on a bug hunt in the playground can provide a magnitude of new things for children to talk about! They may want to tell everyone about the ladybird they found that sat on their hand, or the ant that ran across their friend’s shoe! The possibilities are almost endless! Crucially, we must work to ensure we get the most out of these new experiences by allowing children the time to talk about them with others during and after. It may also be useful to share with parents and carers the experiences they have had at school that day, so that they can ask questions too – allowing for further opportunities for speech, language and communication at home.

Children play in many ways throughout their development, but through each type of play there are rich opportunities for children to develop their speech, language and communication skills. It’s our job as professionals to nurture these opportunities so that children can get the most out of them.

Georgina’s new best-selling publication 100 Ways Your Child Can Learn Through Play provides creative and engaging activities for skill-based learning for children with SEN. Each activity is illustrated and has alternatives and parent/carer tips. The skills checklist for each activity helps you be certain which skills you child is working on.Available from Jessica Kingsley Publishers £14.99

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