Play & Social – How to optimise a Child’s Play and Social Development


Play and Social language and strategies to develop and support a child’s play and social language to enable them to access their learning environment.

Play is the process whereby children explore, interact, and learn about their world around them. Play skills support the development of language and communication skills and the ability to use language socially to engage and interact with others.

In the early years learning environment, many activities and routines involve play especially free play and social interaction. For a child with language and communication difficulties, they may be unable or unwilling to engage in play and social activities with their peers, and therefore unable to build and maintain friendships and engage and interact socially.

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Play begins with simple exploration when a child examines and explores a toy or object by touching and feeling it in their hands, mouthing it, dropping, and banging it, pushing it etc. This is called Exploratory play.

The play extends into the child playing with more than one object whereby they start to relate objects together, e.g., stacking objects, putting simple puzzles together, taking things apart. This is called Relational Play.

The play further develops when a child uses an object for it’s designed purpose, e.g., putting a spoon into a bowl, using a toy phone. This is called Functional Play or Simple Pretend Play.

Finally, the child develops simple pretend play into a set of sequences, role play and using any object in an imaginary sense, e.g., a sequence of putting dolly to bed may involve giving dolly a kiss, putting her on a toy bed and covering her with a blanket. In addition, the child may pretend that a box is dolly’s bed or they pretend they are dolly’s mother and use their hand as a phone while talking to Dad. This is called Symbolic Play.
Play skills lay the foundations for a child’s language development, and social communication. Social language and communication is the way we use eye contact, gestures, pointing and body position to engage and communicate with others. A child looks towards or points to a desired object and then looks to a parent or teacher and this sharing of attention and communicative intent involves social interaction, shared attention, and communication for the desired object.

The activities and strategies listed below are for use with children who:

  • Play alone
  • Play with highly preferred toys or objects only
  • Plays rigidly with the same toys in the same way
  • Watch other children play but are unable to join in
  • Do not appear to be able to play with peers
  • Have difficulty communicating and interacting with peers appropriately
  • Cannot follow the sequence or order of the game or activity
  • Cannot follow the rules of a game
  • Have difficulty in the playground
  • Do not take turns in conversation
  • Only talk about their preferred interest and activities

Prior to working on activities and strategies to enable a child to understand language work through the following:

  1. Observe the child and see what they are doing in the learning environment.
  2. Complete the Teacher checklist for the child.
  3. Have the child’s attention and focus before you start.
  4. Positioning: Always position yourself so you are face to face with the child and get down to their level, especially for younger children. Children with attention difficulties may not be aware the teacher is speaking, especially if they cannot see their face.
  5. Use verbal and or physical prompts: e.g., the child’s name, touch child’s arm or shoulder to gain their attention.
  6. Allow the child to lead you to the activities that they enjoy, and this will enable you to determine what motivates the child: While observing the child in the learning environment, take note of the activities the child plays with when given free access to many items. The things the child selects most frequently or spends the longest amount of time with are most likely to be the most motivating and reinforcing.

Strategies and Approaches to developing Play and Social language

  • Use toys and activities that the child is naturally interested in and motivated by.
  • Move to the child’s physical level, if they are sitting on the floor, sit on the floor face to face with them. If they get up and run around, go with them.
  • Imitate what the child is doing with the toy, engage in the play at their level, e.g. if the child is banging blocks together, imitate what they are doing. This is especially important for children with autism, instead of focusing on how hey are playing, e.g., spinning an object or toy, follow their lead and model language as you would do for any play and interaction.
  • Play face to face games to engage social communication, e.g. Row, row your boat, pause and wait for the child to engage, a look or sounds/word and take another turn.
  • Use simple language at the child’s level of understanding, e.g. one-two words, e.g., block, more blocks, blocks fall.
  • Vary your intonation, facial expressions, volume etc. to get and maintain the child s interest.
  • Model a play for the child, e.g. if they are banging the blocks, you can stack some blocks and see what the child does next, or knock down the blocks and wait for their reaction
  • Use playtime with peers to model play and social language skills, e.g., taking turns building and knocking down the blocks, having a picnic with teddy and dolly.

Fun play and social language activities

0-3 years

Encourage your child to look at you, engage and interact during play activities.

  • Peek-o-boo games. Where‘s Simon?…. there you are
  • Cause-effect toys
  • Imitation games
  • Early nursery rhymes and action songs
  • Make up songs together
  • Encourage play with everyday objects
  • Early pretend play e.g. using a toy phone. doll’s cup etc.

3-5 years

  • Building on early play/social activities, encourage your child to play with miniature objects e.g. cars, animals and people
  • Encourage more pretend play and pretend play sequences, using favourite characters, puppets, and dressing-up
  • Begin to introduce the idea that one object can symbolise another
  • Dress-up games are great fun
  • Have fun with puppets
  • Introduce feelings and emotions through play

5-7 years

Again building on earlier activities:

  • Encourage more elaborate play sequences. including favourite characters
  • Ask questions to encourage the development of ideas, solutions and the plot, in general,
  • Create fun obstacles to your child‘s play so that they must provide solutions
  • Encourage dress-up games

How to help young children to learn to play?

In the first speech therapy video Karen talks about the importance of play, the various forms and stages of play and is full of ideas about activities to encourage your child to play more.

In the second speech therapy session with Karen, she will guide you right through how to teach your child the concept of boy/girl and also the pronouns he/she. Karen will show you the strategies that speech therapists use to develop a child’s comprehension of these specific concepts.

More Specific approaches to developing play and social language skills

If you are looking for more specific techniques/approaches to develop play and social skills we would recommend the following: