100 Days of PLAY: The Importance of PLAY for Speech and Language Development {With Tips}

I am writing this post as part of the 100 Days of Play Challenge hosted by SunScholars and Life at the Zoo. What is 100 Days of Play? “For 100 days, commit to connecting with your children ~ in their world.  Commit to 100 Days of Play!  Let the housework sit untouched for 30 minutes, get away from the stress of the world, get on the floor and give the gift of your time to your children., no doubt you have seen some amazing ideas on how to PLAY with your little one!” Head to SunScholars for more info!

As a speech-language pathologist, I’d love to share with you today the importance of PLAY on your child’s speech and language development. Even more…the importance of YOU in your child’s play on your child’s speech and language development! Here we go! 

The Importance of PLAY

“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” Fred Rogers

5 Ways Children LEARN Speech & Language Through PLAY

First of all, how do our children learn speech and language through play? Well, children learn a LOT of skills while playing, and speech and language are no exception. As quoted above play is the work of childhood. Even when your child is playing silently, they are learning important information that they will carry with them and use later. And this starts the day they are born! Those silly little finger plays and games of peek-a-boo really to help your child learn. As they grow and develop, they begin to learn more and more complex ideas through play. Here are 5 ways children learn speech and language through play, from infancy on.

They Watch

Your children WATCH others’ actions. This starts as soon as they are born. They start watching your face first, taking in your expressions. As they get older, they watch what we do all day and then learn from what they see. They will watch your play, their siblings play, and other children’s play and LEARN. In terms of speech and language development….

  • Your child watches your mouth as you talk, starting as an infant. She files these movements away for later use. 
  • Your child watches your facial expressions during all sorts of experiences and moods and starts to realize what facial expressions go with what moods/feelings.
  • Your child watches your body language when you speak and communicate and will start to learn what your body language means.
  • Your child watches you, siblings and peers play and will later imitate (see below) these actions in her own play, including language that goes along with the play.

They Listen

While they are watching us, children are also LISTENING to us as well. Again, this starts the day they are born (or, even BEFORE birth!) They listen to all the sounds we make, the words we say and the sentences we form. In the beginning, they won’t mean anything but soon, all these words will begin to make sense to them. They will be listening to YOU play with them, siblings and peers and will begin  to imitate (see below) those words.

They Explore

Here is where PLAY really gets important. Your children begin to explore. They explore the things around them and manipulate them. They “play” with them. As he does this, you are sitting with him and you are playing and talking with him. He is watching you and listening to you. When you put the block on the tower and say “Block ON!” He is learning the word for “on.” When you place the block in the basket and say “Block IN!” he is learning the word for “in.” He is also watching you do these actions and taking note so he can try them too. This exploring and playing goes on through childhood, both while you are playing with him and while he is playing with peers, siblings and even during solitary play.

They Imitate

All this watching and listening is going to start to pay off.  Your child starts to IMITATE your actions and the sounds they hear around them. Though you may not realize it, the gross motor imitation your little one starts doing in the form of clapping, waving, moving, etc as an infant is actually a prelanguage skill! Yes! Believe it or not early gross motor imitation is a precursor to language!

Specifically in regards to speech and language imitation, this begins as the coos you hear at just a few months of age and then will move to babbling and soon real words.  So those silly little rhymes and finger plays that you do with your infants and toddlers? They are helping to lay the foundation of your child’s speech, language, communication and social skills! All those times that you are sitting with your child, narrating your actions and their own…you know, the times you fell like a crazy person talking to yourself sometimes? This is teaching your child LANGUAGE! 

They Create/Formulate and Use Language for Purpose

Now your child is going to put it all together. All those skills he has been working on…all that watching, listening, exploring and imitating is going to help your child begin to create and formulate his own words and sentences. Then, he will be using this language for purpose. He will use these new words to communicate his needs and wants and share information. He will use this new language in his play with you, siblings, peers and even in solitary play. My son, age two, makes sound effects and talks about what he is doing during his solitary play. My daughter, 4.5, does the same but with much longer and complex utterances and ideas. Both children use their language during play with each other and with their peers, all the while creating and formulating new ideas and sentences and using that language to communicate and share. The more they do this, the more they are learning!

Five Tips for Using PLAY to Expand and Extend Your Child’s Speech and Language Development

This is where YOU come in. How can YOU best help your child expand his speech and language skills through PLAY? Here are 5 tips for you!

1. Pick Open Ended Toys (And Ditch the Batteries)

When looking for toys for your child to play with, pick toys that provide OPEN ENDED PLAY. You want toys where your child “does the doing” and not the toy. And…please, ditch the batteries as much as possible. It is ok to have a few toys with batteries (a few in my own home include a couple cameras that take real pictures, a toy vacuum, and a play lap top) but make this the exception, and not the rule.  Kim from Little Stories also talks about SCLANS and how we need to try to avoid them. For some of my toy recommendations, check out my four part series (click on the image below).

Best Toys 1

I also love this post Free Play With Loose Parts: What, Why How by Cathy at Nurture Store. She shares how you can use random household things to inspire open ended play (comes with a free printable too!).

2. Don’t Worry About Gender

When picking toys for your child, don’t stick to gender specific toys. Let your girls play with trucks and trains and your boys play with toy kitchens and baby dolls. Here is some research on The Impact of Specific Toys on Play from the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC).

“What set the highest-scoring toys apart was that they prompted problem solving, social interaction, and creative expression in both boys and girls. Interestingly, toys that have traditionally been viewed as male oriented—construction toys and toy vehicles, for example—elicited the highest quality play among girls. So, try to set aside previous conceptions about what inspires male and female play and objectively observe toy effects to be sure boys and girls equally benefit from play materials.”

I contributed to a great post all about why all children (even boys) should have a baby doll. You can read it at Mama OT (click image below).


3. Set up Open Ended Play Schemes

Setting up your child with some open ended play schemes is a GREAT way to help his/her language skills and introduce him/her to a wide variety of vocabulary and concepts. For example, you can set up some train tracks with trains, cars on a track, some play food in the kitchen, a pretend restaurant, a pretend post office, grocery store play, super hero play, etc. Here are some ideas for inspiration (click on the images below).

Doll Diaper Station Happy Hooligans

Doll Diaper Station from Happy Hooligans

puppet theater toddler approved

Using Puppets for Language Development by Toddler Approved

4. PLAY and be PRESENT with Your Children

I just wrote a whole post on this topic. Click on the image below to take you there and learn why being PRESENT with your children and playing with them is SO important.

Slow Down and Be Present

5. Use These Tips on How to Help Your Child Talk

I just shared these tips/tools in my post Top 10 Summer Activities to Encourage Your Toddler’s Speech Development {A Summer Challenge}. While getting down with your child and PLAYING while being 100% PRESENT, you will have the opportunity to really help expand your child’s speech and language development. For additional tips, check out my How to Help Your Child Talk page.

  1. Five Tips to Help Your Toddler Learn Language and Communicate. This is a guest post I did at one of my favorite blogs Toddler Approved several months ago. I provide my top 5 tips for helping your child learn language and communicate. Use these 5 tools in your tool box when playing with your child to help expand his/her speech, language and communication skills!
  2. 10 Ways to Practice Waiting. In my post linked above, I talk about the importance of WAITING. Kim at Little Stories has a fantastic post about this. GO check it out and use her tips this summer.
  3. Questions: Why Less is More: Part ONE and Part TWO: In my two posts, I explain the importance of not asking too many questions while interacting with your young children and give tips on how to use questions minimally but effectively. Make sure to read Part One and Part Two and think about your language as you play with your child this summer.
  4. I Hold, You Talk. This is a strategy I use all the time with my little client’s who are working on those first words and phrases. Kim at Little Stories coined this great term and explains it on her blog. Another great tool to add to your toolbox.
  5. Expansions and Extensions: I am constantly using these with my own toddler. These are great for your children who have just started talking all the way up to children speaking in short sentences. A must have in your toolbox for this summer.

More Reading Regarding PLAY and Overall Development

Want to learn more about the importance of PLAY on your child’s overall development, including pre academic skills? Check out these thought provoking articles, and let me know what you think. Ditch the flashcards and pick up a toy train!

Want to Get Your Kids Into College? Let Them Play by Erika Christakis and Nicholas Christakis on CNN.com

Einstein May Never Have Used Flashcards, but He Probably Built Forts by Lory Hough from Harvard Graduate School of Education

The Power of Play in the Early Learning Environment by Deborah from Teach Preschool (MUST READ)

Don’t Let Your Preschoolers Forget How to Play by Janet Lansbury

The Central Importance of Play by Anna from The Imagination Tree

100 Days of PLAY!

As I mentioned, this post was written as part of a fantastic challenge by SunScholars and Life at the Zoo. Click on the image below to take you to OVER 100 WAYS YOU can PLAY with your child!

100 days of PLAY

100 Days of Play is brought to you by these wonderful bloggers below!

SunScholars . Frogs, Snails & Puppy Dog Tails . Playful Learners . Train Up a Child . Fantastic Fun & Learning . Scribble, Doodle & Draw . Learn. Create. Love. . Mom to 2 Posh Lil Divas .Nothing if Not Intentional . My Little 3 & Me . Buggy & Buddy . Sun Hats & Wellie Boots .Twodaloo . True Aim . The Educators’ Spin On It Blog Me Mom . Life At The Zoo . Putti’s WorldKitchen Counter Chronicles . Triple T Mum . Busy Kids Happy Mom . Crystal’s Tiny Treasures .Rainy Day Mum . Momma’s Fun World . My Little Bookcase . Craftulate . One Perfect Day .MumCentral . Artchoo! . Creative World Of Varya . Simple. Home. Blessings. . JDaniel4’s Mom .NurtureStore . Me & Marie Learning . Child Central Station . Mamas Like Me . Mama MissMaking Boys Men . Powerful Mothering . Craft to Art . 3 Dinosaurs . Domestic Goddesque .Lessons Learnt Journal . Royal Baloo . Smiling Like Sunshine . Adventures at Home with Mum .B-Inspired Mama . PragmaticMom . Eazy Peazy Mealz . Gluesticks . TheBoy&Me . Learning is Messy . My Nearest & Dearest . Growing Book by Book . How to Run a Home Daycare . Here Come the Girls . Think Magnet Dandelions Picked . 123 Homeschool 4 Me . Our Ordinary Life .Parenting with Professor Poppins . 2 Little Hooligans . Fun-a-Day! . The Non-Martha Mamma .Angelique Felix . My Very Educated Mother . Creative Playhouse . Go Explore Nature . Zing Zing Tree . Sense of Wonder . Childhood 101 . Crayon Freckles . KZ & Me . Serenity You . This Mumma’s Life . Leapfrog & Ladybugs . Blue Bear Wood . Growing Together . KC EDventures .Mommy Lessons 101 . Nature & Play . Like Mama Like Daughter . Mums Make Lists . From Wine to Whine . Messy Kids . Babble Dabble Do . Sugar Aunts . Teaching @ Home . Preschool Powol Packets . Clothed in Love . Curiosity Creates . The Magnolia Barn . Strong Start . Stay-at-Home Mom Survival Guide . Learn with Play at Home . Mummy… Mummy… MUM! . Science SparksToddler Approved . Thrive 360 Living . Rockabye Butterfly . Mud Hut Mama . Coffee Cups & Crayons . Playing with Words 365 . My Lil Love Bugs . Creative Connections for Kids . LalyMom .Love, Play, Learn . Kindergarten & Preschool for Parents & Teachers . The Pleasantest Thing .Teach Beside Me


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About Katie

Katie is a licensed, credentialed and certified pediatric speech-language pathologist and mom to three (5, 3 and 9 months). Her passion about educating, inspiring and empowering parents of children with all abilities led her to start her blog Playing With Words 365 where she shares information about speech and language development, therapy ideas and tips, intervention strategies and a little about her family life too. Katie has been working in the field of speech pathology for 9 years and is certified in The Hanen Centre’s It Takes Two to Talk ® and Target Word ® programs and holds a certificate in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). In addition to blogging and being a mommy, Katie works part time in her small private practice in the San Francisco Bay Area. You can follow her on Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter.


  1. Linda Z. says:

    love this! so many parents use the tv and ipads as babysitters instead of engaging in playtime with their kids. Some kids need to be taught how to play because they don’t get imaginative and unscheduled playtime at home.

  2. this is brilliant! so much useful info here!
    anna recently posted..Cotton & Olive Review and GiveawayMy Profile

  3. These are really interesting and great tips. I didn’t know much of this, and need to re-evaluate how I am playing with my 18 month old!! Thanks for linking up with Pin It! Tuesday! Hope to see you there again next week!

  4. Thanks so much for this wonderful contribution to our 100 Days of Play Blog Hop! I am playing some catch up, but your post has now been linked and shared! Thanks so much for joining us!

  5. This idea about SCLANs being a hinderence to a child’s learning of speech and language is an eye-opener for me! Thank you for all of this insight!
    I am wondering if you have any advice for me on helping my 20 month-old develop her speech and language through play WHILE her 4 yr old sister constantly interrupts my attempts to have her imitate my actions and repeat my words? Do you know what I mean? I will point to an object and say what it is, like duck, and ask her to say duck, but my 4 yr old chimes in so quickly and doesn’t give her little sister a chance. Do I need to separate them sometimes? Or how can I incorporate both sets of speech and language skills but still focus on my little one? (my 4 yr old was an early talker and actually speaks quite well, so I have no concerns at this time for her)


  1. […] Friday evening I sat and watched my two youngest children play. They were so sweet as they delved deep into a world of play. And as I sat and observed them I wondered about the importance of pretend play in language development. Play has always been a key component in raising my children with three languages, but whether you are raising your child with one or two or three, the fact remains. Play, and especially pretend play, is a vital element in helping children develop their speech and language. Children watch, listen, explore, imitate and create language with purpose as they play. (See: The importance of play for speech and language devevelopment.) […]

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