It is easy to forget that much of a child's language develops within the context of play with an adult or with other children. Play can be an ideal vehicle for language acquisition for a number of reasons (Sachs, 1984):

  • Since play is not goal oriented, it removes pressure and frustration from the interactive process. It's fun.
  • Attention and the semantic domain are shared by the interactive partners, so topics are shared.
  • Games have reciprocal role structure and variations in the order of elements, as do grammars.
  • Games, like conversations, contain turn-taking.

In languages as different as English and Japanese, levels of play and language development appear to be similar (McCune-Nicolich, 1986; Ogura, 1991). Play and language develop interdependently and demonstrate underlying cognitive developments. This relationship is presented in the table below.

Initially, both play and language are very concrete and depend on the here and now. With cognition maturity, however, they both become less concrete. At about the time that children begin to combine symbols, they begin to play symbolically in which one play object, such as a shoe, is used for another, such as a telephone. In like fashion, symbols represent concepts.

Children often attempt to involve their parents in this pretend play. As playmates, parents can show by example how to play. Often, parents contribute running narratives of the play as it progresses and provide children with the basic problem-resolution narrative or story model. Even 2-year-olds can learn the basic problem-resolution format, as in "The doggie barked, so Mommy let her go outside." In general, the number of sequences in children's play is related to the syntactic complexity of their speech (Bates, Bretherton, & Snyder, 1988).

Thematic role playing and accompanying linguistic style changes begin at around age 3. By this age, children possess generalized sequential scripts of many familiar situations (Nelson, 1986). At first, a child's role represents himself or herself. Later roles are projected on other persons and dolls. Eventually, an object may play a reciprocal role.

By age 4 a child is able to role-play a baby, using a higher pitch, phonetic substitutions, shorter and simpler utterances, and more references to self. At about this time, a child begins to role-play "Mom and Dad" differently. In general, mothers are portrayed as more polite, using more indirect requests, with a higher pitch and longer utterances. Role-played fathers make more commands and give less explanation for their behavior. Prosodic and rhythmic devices are the first stylistic variations used by children, followed by appropriate content and then syntactic regularities.

Although the language used in solitary play is not typical of a child's performance, social play is quite different. In social play, language is used explicitly to convey meaning because of the different realistic and imaginary meanings of props ("This'll be a phone") and roles ("You be the daddy"). Language is used to clarify ("You can't say that if you're the baby") and negotiate ("Okay, you can say it if you want to"). Play themes consist of sequential episodes whose organization increases with a child's age (Galda, 1984; Pellegrini, 1985).

The language used in play is influenced by the participants and the play context. In general, preschoolers prefer same-gender pairs with no adult present (Pellegrini & Perlmutter, 1989). While children of both genders prefer replica play, such as dolls, a pretend store, or dress-up, boys also prefer play with blocks.

Initially, preschoolers prefer very functionally explicit props, such as a phone, car, or cup. As children mature and participate in more frequent imaginative play, they use more ambiguous props, such as blocks or stones, that can represent other entities (Pellegrini & Perlmutter, 1989).

Although a preschool child is too young for team games and is not cognitively ready to follow game rules, he or she does enjoy group activities. Language learning is enhanced by the songs, rhymes, and finger plays common among children in daycare or preschool. Within play, a child and a communication partner can participate in a dialog free of the pressures of "real" communication. In addition, the child is free to experiment with different communication styles and roles...after all, this is play!

Cognition, Play, and Language

Approx. Age (mos.) Cognitive Development Play Development Language Development
Below 12 Association of events with habitual actions Recognition of objects and functional use Presymbolic communication
12-15 Global representation of events Self-pretend: Meaningful actions used playfully Single words for global referent
15-21 Analysis of represented objects or events Differentiated pretend play with dolls and other activities. Decentered play with reference to others Reference to a range of entities, parts, and states
21-24 Juxtaposition of symbolic elements Pretend combinations Simple language combinations
24-26 Complete event stored with organized component parts Planning and storage of symbolic goal while trying to accomplish. Combinatorial play episodes with two themes. Store message while parts organized

Source: Adapted from Bretherton (1984).