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Why Is Play Important? Cognitive Development, Language Development, Literacy Development (page 2)

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

Language Development

Evan and Anna are preparing a birthday celebration for their mother in the housekeeping area of their Head Start classroom. When they realize they need a present, Anna says, “Let’s ask Mr. Bear.” This is a reference to the book Ask Mr. Bear by Marjorie Flack (1932), in which Danny tries to find the perfect birthday present for his mother by asking several different animals for suggestions. After locating the book in the library corner, Evan and Anna become the goose, the goat, the cow, the hen, and the bear as they search for the perfect present. The book becomes the content for their play as they assume the roles of the animals, experiment with the intonations and inflections of the different animals, and use language to guide their own behavior and direct the behavior of others. Evan and Anna’s play is contributing to their language growth and vice versa.

Proficiency in oral language is essential for all children’s success in school. Studies of how children learn both their first and second language describe language use as a major influence on language development (Han, Benavides, & Christie, 2001; Morrow, 2001). In the previous scenario, we see at least four ways in which Anna and Evan’s play of a birthday celebration enables them to practice important language skills:

  1. Communication. In pretend play, children use role-appropriate statements and metacommunication, or language used to maintain the play episode; plan a story line; and assign roles. Pretending to be someone else enables children to use voice inflections and language in situations they may or may not have encountered. Play helps children internalize the many rule systems associated with the language they are speaking. It also helps them generate multiple ways of expressing their thinking (Santrock, 2003).
  2. Forms and functions. During play, children learn to use language for different purposes in a variety of settings and with different people. Michael Halliday (1975) calls this process “learning how to mean,” as children discover that what they say translates to what can be done. Talking in play settings allows children to practice the necessary forms and functions of language (Halliday, 1975) and helps them think about ways to communicate. Moreover, for children whose native language is not English, play offers children opportunities to build on and practice fluency in their home language in safe and informal settings (Han et al., 2001; Owocki, 1999). describes these functions, provides a language example, and identifies play contexts that support these language forms and functions.
  3. Purposeful verbal interaction. In play with others, children often use language to ask for materials, ask a question, seek out information and provide information to others, express ideas, explore language, and establish and maintain the play. For younger children, verbal give-and-take during sociodramatic play needs to be highly developed because children plan, manage, problem-solve, and maintain the play by verbal explanations, discussions, or commands (Smilansky & Shefatya, 1990). For older children, the ability to use a reflective and analytical approach to language is related to their level of linguistic awareness and achievements, which are essential to all forms of play.
  4. Play with language. Children of all ages enjoy playing with language because, in doing so, they feel in control of it. Play is their arena for experimenting with and coming to understand words, syllables, sounds, and grammatical structure. Language play for elementary school children manifests itself in the jokes, riddles, jump rope rhymes, and games they use. Elementary school children are intrigued by the sound and meaning ambiguity of “knock-knock” jokes as well as by the humor of enacting scripts that include dialogue involving multiple meanings and rhymes. These forms of language play require the transformational ability to explore the phonological, syntactic, and semantic rules of language (Bergen, 2002; Clawson, 2002, Isenberg & Quisenberry, 2002).
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