Published on December 17, 2021

More than Child's Play

child with paint on hands

Play is the most natural context for learning language. Children are more motivated to engage and communicate when playing with items that interest them.

Play also helps increase a child’s attention and build positive interactions. For children who have communication deficits, peers are an effective source of intervention. While playing with peers, children learn the correct social skills for playing, as well as appropriate reactions in real life events. Play increases their vocabulary and helps them learn to take turns.

In therapy, we use play as a form of reinforcement, but it also helps children increase their receptive (understanding) and expressive (speaking) language skills. Play allows a child to learn new skills and understand language concepts during natural interactions, while also allowing them to problem solve and apply the skills in other areas of life.

Types of Play

  • Functional play, where a child uses a toy for its intended purpose. Some examples of functional play are bouncing a ball, stacking blocks, rolling cars, using scissors to cut items and using pens/pencils to write or draw.
  • Symbolic play, where a child uses one object to represent other objects. An example of symbolic play is using a TV remote as a phone or using a blanket to make a fort.
  • Imaginative play, where a child acts out a familiar routine or something that seems interesting to them. Some examples of imaginative play are feeding an animal/baby doll, playing doctor/vet or cooking/eating with toy food.

As a parent, you don't always have to play with your child. Independent play is great for children, too. It helps increase your child's independence, problem solving skills and creativity.

Children do not need complex toys or activities. Often, children are most interested in items we use every day. You do not need to buy expensive toys – all you really need are toys you may already own.

Some examples of play that support appropriate language use include toy kitchen with food, pretend dollhouse with pretend people, community helpers, barn with toy farm animals, bubbles, balls, puzzles, blocks, books, board games, shape sorter and costumes/adult clothes and props. Children learn from scene role playing, such as playing with a cash register and toy food and pretending to buy items or playing with a toy kitchen and pretending to cook or serve at a restaurant.

Children learn best through movement. At Longtown Medical Park, where I work as a pediatric speech therapist for the NMMC Outpatient Rehabilitation Center, we recently installed a sensory gym that helps us incorporate movement into our therapy sessions. Some key features that encourage play while helping children reach developmental milestones are:

Rock Climbing Wall

  • Helps increase a child’s strength, coordination, balance, problem solving and motor planning.
  • Helps increase a child’s communication skills by working on requesting, following directions, colors and prepositions


  • Help with sensory regulation. Therapeutic swings help a child feel calm and secure
  • Help Increase communication by requesting and using actions
  • Help with balance and trunk control


  • Help children improve their strength, single leg stance, alternating movements, body awareness and safety


  • Helps with communication by requesting and using actionsServes as a reward for behavior modification

Foam Blocks

  • Help a child learn skills like stacking, following directions, sequencing, identifying colors and answering wh- questions (“what color do you have?” “where does the blue block go?”)

Zip Line

  • Helps improve a child’s safety awareness, core/trunk control, strength, coordination and stability

Monkey Bars

  • Help improve strength, coordination, alternation of movements and body awareness
  • Help with communication by sequencing, requesting, actions and initiation


  • Helps a child improve strength, coordination, body awareness and alternation of movement
  • Helps increase communication skills by requesting and expressing prepositions (such as “up,” “down”)

Play allows a child to learn new skills, understand language concepts & problem solve.