Helpful Hints on Play and Linguistic Development

Preschoolers, Learning to Read and the Importance of Play
Parents of preschoolers are constantly bombarded with advertisements promising to make their children “Little Einsteins” and master readers before they are five years old. These products and workbooks may have great educational intentions, but they can overshadow foundational skills for future academic success.  
A child who participates in activities that include descriptive and lively role playing is more likely to have greater reading comprehension skills, more imaginative writing and thinking skills and be more confident socially. 
Dr. Carol Westby, a speech language pathologist and researcher, has studied children’s play and play development for over forty years. She and other researchers have found that child’s play skills can provide insight into their current cognitive, speech and language abilities.  Children’s play skills are never above their cognitive functioning level.
The way a child manipulates toys and Interacts with other children using these toys can inform parents and teachers on whether or not that child may need a speech and language evaluation.
For example, Stage VI of the Westby Play Scale emerges typically around age 2 ½.  At this stage a child mostly engages in parallel play with emerging associative play. Children will act out less infrequent or traumatic events (like going to the doctor). If the child attends a regular preschool or daycare they may act out a teacher-student relationship. Children will switch roles quickly and frequently during play without alerting their play partner of the change.  A child at Stage VI may play doctor in one occurrence then turn around and play the mommy in the same setting several minutes later.
Speech and Language skills observed at Stage VI include the ability to ask wh- questions such as “Where is your mommy?” and “Why you not like it?” , knowledge and use of the vocabulary and syntax used in these play activities (including words such as “baby”, “milk”, “sleepy” and subject+ verb + object sentences like “Baby eat apple”). Often, a child’s responses may or may not be related to the initial question (The child who was asked the question may introduce another topic or comment on an unrelated event).
Cognitive skills displayed at Stage VI include the ability to understand that objects can be used symbolically (“pretend”), that they can act as a symbolic agent (“doctor”) and perform actions with objects that appear realistic (e.g., baby doll). Children at this stage also understand that their words can change the affect and behavior of their play partners. Many times they will “try out” words and phrases they’ve witnessed adults or older kids use (e.g., “No I not”) to see what reaction they receive from their communication partner.
A March 3, 2008 story by Alix Spiegel on NPR entitled “Creative Play Makes for Kids in Control” discussed how children’s play skills were crucial to the development of executive functioning skills and self-regulation.  Adele Diamond, an executive function researcher and professor of developmental cognitive neuroscience at the University of British Columbia commented on the importance of executive functioning and self-regulation and the increase of children diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, “I think a lot of kids get diagnosed with ADHD now, not all but many just because they never learned how to exercise self-control, self-regulation…”. 
She went on to say that “When children learn to rely on themselves for playtime-improvising props, making up games and stories-they’re actually developing critical cognitive skills…”
She further commented on how imaginative play can be helpful to children at any age: ‘What you are looking for is a fun activity that requires sustained concentration, holding information in mind and using it (often complex information), and something that requires resisting what might be your first inclination”. 
Working Memory and Its Importance in Academic Success
Working memory, like play skills, involves the integration of language abilities and cognition. Working memory is an important part of a child’s success in school. What is working memory?  “the temporary storage and manipulation of information that is assumed to be necessary for a wide range of complex cognitive activities” (Baddeley,2003, Journal of Communication Disorders, 36 (3), 189-208.   
Speech language pathologists can teach children and their parents how to improve a child’s working memory. They can also suggest tools and work with teachers and parents to help decrease frustration with managing in school and in the community.  
Here are some ideas and strategies that parents and teachers can use:
  • Use a Visual Schedule: Using pictures to help a child keep up with the sequence of daily activities can not only improve their compliance with their schedule (they’ll begin to rely on the schedule to predict upcoming events) but also increase their ability to retain more information in their working memory.
  • Use a Scribd pen: This is a pen that records while a child takes notes during class.  This enables them to try and write down important words without missing other elements of the teacher’s lecture. 
  • Repeat Information: As a parent, when you are trying to retain new information (like a website that you want to reference later), say it out loud and say it many times out loud. This teaches your child that it is ok to use verbal and auditory feedback to memorize information.
  • Recall Simple Sequences: Try to remember a recent event and talk out each sequence with your child (e.g., “Remember yesterday when we went to the park? First we put on our jackets, then we put on our shoes and you climbed in the wagon”). 
  • Singing “In Your Head”: Play a game with your child where you sing a favorite preschool song and act out the finger plays without vocalizing. See if your child can perform this game with you and “sing” the song in their head at the same time.
Michelle Stewart-Tooson is the director and Lead Therapist with Pediatrics First Speech Therapy in Bristow Va. She can be reached at or 
  • Dr. Carol Westby, Language, Speech and Hearing Services in the Schools, XI, July 1980
  • Baddeley,2003, Journal of Communication Disorders, 36 (3), 189-208.