How Can Play Promote Language Development?

Written by Alexandria Pistilli, M.Sc. Candidate Child Studies Concordia University.

Montreal, Canada.

The first few years of a child’s life are critical for language development. From birth to around 5 years of age, children’s brains are wired in such a way that it is easier for them to learn languages during this period. For this reason, the environment that we create for children can either promote or limit opportunities for language growth. Luckily, research shows that play can increase children’s language abilities.

1-    Ask wh-questions: Wh-questions (who, what, where, when, why, how) have shown to not only increase children’s vocabulary size, but also their verbal reasoning skills. This will allow you to encourage speech from your child while you both have lots of fun. Extend on what your child’s response (e.g. “What are you making?” “Toast” “Are you making toast for your dolly?” and have them question their actions (e.g. “What are you making?” “A tunnel” “Why do you need to make a tunnel?”). Point out objects and ask them about their properties, what they can be used for, etc. 

2-    Encourage a conversation. Allow your child the opportunity to respond to your questions. Our first instinct is to answer for them when they are taking time to respond, however, when we allow children time to think, they may surprise us! Even when their response doesn’t make much sense, go with the flow, and continue prompting them for more.

3-     Let your child take the lead. This will make sure they are engaged and that they are following their own interests. They are more likely to grasp onto language when they are immersed in their experience. Children have much shorter attention spans than adults do, so it is normal for them to switch activities rather quickly. As long as they are enjoying what they are doing, they will be more attuned to what you are telling them, making them more likely to pick up on new words. During play, it is important that you are supportive, attentive, and responsive. However, this is one of those situations where your child can benefit from being the boss!

children playing.jpeg

4-    Take play outside. During the warmer months, going outside can be refreshing for kids. Washable paint or sidewalk chalk is a great way to work on language in a creative way. By asking your child about what they are drawing, they will practice their language skills by responding to you in a situation that is different from what they are used to. It is important to generalize play to different contexts (so not just in the play room of your home). Practicing to write their name in sand, paint, dirt, etc will encourage your child to experiment with their writing skills too. This is a good opportunity to let them explore nature, see animals, and the changing on the seasons.

5-    Use familiar themes. It is easier for children to re-enact themes that they have scene before such as shopping, eating, playing doctor, teacher, restaurant, etc. You can add characters or plot twists to get your child thinking and practice their problem solving skills. This will extend their language and thinking skills. 

6-    Use props during story time. Interactive storybook reading and guided play are two great ways that parents can get involved in stimulating this growth in children. Accompanying books with props is a great way to engage your child while reading to them. For example: If the book is about farm animals, use toys or puppets to act out the story. Acting out parts of the story with your child will not only make reading fun, but it will get your child talking and allow them to be immersed while you teach them new concepts and words.

7-    Be present.  The best way to communicate with your child is when there are no interruptions- refrain from using your phone or watching tv in the background. Use this block of time to have some fun with your child while helping them build their language skills. Working together to complete a task such as a puzzle or building a tower or even playing princess involves both the effort of yourself and your child. Remember, you’re bonding with your child, practicing important skills with them, and most importantly, having fun!


  1. Rowe, M., Leech, K. & Cabrera, N. (2017). Going beyond input quantity: Wh-questions matter for toddlers’ language and child development. Cognitive Science, 41, 162-179.

  2. Ribot, K., Hoff, E. & Burridge, A. (2017). Language use contributes to expressive language growth: Evidence from bilingual children. Child Development, 1-12.

  3. Massey, S. (2013). From the reading rug to the play center: Enhancing vocabulary and comprehensive language skills by connecting storybook reading and guided play. Early Childhood Education Journal, 41(2), 125–131. doi:10.1007/s10643-012-0524-y.

  4. Williams, M., & Rask, H. (2003). Literacy through play: How families with able children support their literacy development. Early Child Development and Care, 173(5), 527-533. doi: 10.1080/0300443032000088276

  5. Ginsburg KR. (2007). The importance of play in promoting healthy child development and maintaining strong parent-child bonds. American Academy of Pediatrics. 119, 182-191.