Using Play to Develop your Child’s Language Skills

One of the most striking developmental changes occurring from infancy into childhood is the development of language. Can you believe at 18 months, most infants can produce about 50 words, and by the age of 6 most children have 5 000 word families in their vocabulary?!  Language development in children begins from birth, and experts in the field suggest the foundations for high-level language and communication skills are made before a child turns 3.

So, as we continue to explore cognitive development at Educational Toys Online this month, it seems fitting to take a look at why language matters and how we can support language development in children through play.

Stimulating Environments

Successful language development in children relies on positive interactions in stimulating environments – a flow of conversation is essential for both language and wider development, and exposure to, and interactions through, adult-child conversations are crucial!

Research suggests the quantity (and quality) of language input from parents and caregivers during a child’s first few years play a significant role in both long-term language accomplishments (such as the ability to express themselves effectively in adulthood) and overall academic success later in life. In fact, Russian Psychologist Vygotsky (known for his theories of child cognitive development and the benefits of play) argued the development of thought and language go together and our ability to reason is related to how well we communicate and interact. Furthermore, our language skills are believed to support other cognitive skills, with researchers suggesting our ‘inner speech’ helps with thought flexibility and the ability to switch between tasks, by allowing us to mentally represent task requirements and keep track of where we are in sequences. Our inner voice allows us to mentally track our progress when problem solving.

Playing develops language, which in turn develops our problem solving skills – what a perfect relationship to fit with our topic of inquiry this month!

Parent & Infant Play

As we mentioned above, the frequency and richness of vocalisations during parent-infant interactions are associated with infant language learning. The good news is parent-infant play has been linked to developing language in a number of ways:

  • In a baby’s first year, playtime with their parents often includes observing and reacting to their parent’s play. However, as they enter their second year, playtime becomes more complex and interactive and communication becomes key as they play together!
  • Playtime offers a uniquely rich opportunity for verbalisations – featuring an abundance of labelling, describing, questioning, conversations sparked by turn-taking and sharing interactions, and the use of gestures!
  • Playtime provides an opportunity for both the parent and child to focus on and pay attention to the same objects – while sharing attention, parents use, and encourage their child to use, specific language and gestures regarding the toy they are playing with – what a great way to foster communication skills!

So What’s the Best Type of Play? And What Toys Are the Best to Support Language Development in Children?

It can be tempting to look for the most technologically advanced toys – those claiming to support language development. However, a recent study following infants aged between 10 – 16 months found electronic toys were not associated with better quantity or quality of language in play and that parents speak and respond less when infants play with electronic toys compared with traditional toys and books. In fact, there is no current evidence to suggest children this young are able to learn vocabulary from non-human interactions (e.g. electronic toys) or the media (e.g. tv).

Rather, this study found the best method is to keep it simple!

Interactive play time with traditional toys is much more engaging for infants – and books, puzzles, shape sorting games and blocks were associated with a higher number of words produced by parents and conversation! Books provide a script for parents, helpful for introducing children to an exciting range of words while capturing their attention and imagination through storytelling! Puzzles, shape-sorting games & blocks, especially those featuring a theme (e.g. letters, numbers, animals, planets), encourage children to learn content-specific words, and encourages conversation through labelling and describing the toys, asking and responding to questions, and sharing/exchanging toys!


Sosa AV. (2016). Association of the type of toy used during play with the quantity and quality of parent-infant communication. JAMA Pediatrics, 170(2), 132-137. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2015.3753

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