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Fun in Fundamentals: Why Play is Important for Language Development

“Mom, is this really a school?”, I overheard my student ask his mom. “Yes, it is. Why?”, replied Mom. “Because it‟s so much fun! Is it really a school?”, he continued in wide-eyed disbelief.

It is a common occurrence to hear people ask why therapy involves quite a lot of play. Play is not work, play is not studying. Studying is often equated to paper-pencil tasks, reading, teachers giving lectures. There is nothing wrong with these examples of teaching methods. However, once your child reaches the home setting and is required to continue with so-called “school work”, it may not come as a surprise that there will be some resistance t o „learning‟. Too often I receive reports of children not wanting to come to school to learn due to burnout from all things school-related, and lack of unstructured play time. Even the famed actress and Harvard alumnus Natalie Portman once said “I don‟t love studying. I hate studying. I like learning. Learning is beautiful”. While we put a premium on verbal intelligence as a society, it is quite important to note that there are other types of intelligences and that a high intelligence quotient (IQ) and academic achievement is not the sole predictor of later success in life. If a child does not like „studying‟, what better alternative is there than a fun context such as play?

Play is relevant to a child‟s overall health and development and has been recognized by the United Nations as a right of every child, as noted by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Engineer, doctor, nurse, scientist, firefighter, mail carrier are some of the occupations that adults have. But what about children? What is their job? Play is the most basic occupation of a child. Play varies across ages but has motor, cognitive, emotional and social aspects. Here are some reasons why you would want your child to play his way to language development:

1. Play is rewarding.

Play in and of itself is rewarding because it is fun. Human beings often repeatedly participate in things that make them feel good. The same principle goes for children. It is easy to learn naturally when a child is enjoying the activity he is engaged in. A child receives immediate feedback from his playmates - he gets a toy he asks for, shares a laugh, gets attention when he calls a friend‟s name, and more. Thus, if learning is conducted in the context of play, a child will be more motivated to participate and listen to whatever an adult has to say or teach.

2. Play involves all the senses.

Most learners are visual in nature, meaning we remember more of the things we encounter if we have some form of „picture‟ to remember it by. But, remembering is better achieved through engaging a multi-sensory approach. In some teaching methods, children are tasked to trace letters made of sandpaper while they are saying the name or sound of that letter. By using both sight and touch, in addition to hearing, the child has more avenues open to learning. In as much the same way, play invites participation of all the senses, including balance, body awareness, tactile feedback apart from your senses of sight, smell, hearing and taste. Children using more senses experience more things, thus having more topics to talk about or enjoy listening to. This, in turn helps them be more confident speakers and more critical listeners.

3. Play develops social skills.

Play occurs at different levels, but we often picture „play‟ in our minds as a group of 3 or more engaging in a ball game. Usually, play is more enjoyable when there are more participants in them. By exposure to more types of personalities, a child gets to practice his social abilities more. Saying please and thank you, using your words to get what you want, following the leader, listening for signals, maintaining good eye contact and body orientation are but some of the observable values of play through social interaction. The variables involved in the number and differences of play participants increase. This variability encourages flexible thinking and increases abilities in adapting to change and problems. This is in contrast to a one-on-one relationship with a game console, a tablet, and similar technologies in which the responses obtained via the game are routine and predictable in nature.

4. Play develops problem solving.

As with any group of people, conflicts will eventually arise. Conflicts end up in peaceful, verbal resolutions in which we see the play participants continue to engage in fun activities or breakdown and be punctuated by loud bawling and fingers pointing at each other on who started the matter. However, resolving conflicts is an underestimated skill. Learning to negotiate without adult intervention is golden. Rare opportunities for hearing differences in opinion (“Iron Man is better than Thor” vs. “Thor has a HAMMER!!!”) restricts children in understanding that what they think aren‟t always what other children think. Little people begin to understand that you can be friends with someone but not have the same opinion as them. Problem solved! Also, having a finite set of resources allows for sharing and coming up with creative ways to address the limited set of toys or materials they may have. This is important in encouraging imaginative play such as letting one thing stand for another (i.e., a stick for a wand, a comb for a microphone). Play is not equal to toys, and in my practice I have seen children with the most expensive toys but not know how to truly play with them.

5. Play encourages asking of questions.

Interest in play allows children to have confidence in their speaking abilities. “What‟s your name?”, “What are you playing?”, “May I join you?” are but some of the most frequent questions children ask when they want to play. It also allows for making clarifications, “When are you supposed to run, before or after you get tagged „it‟?”, “Did you say „stop‟ already?”. Asking appropriate questions and knowing when the best time is to do so encourages a truly fun and rewarding experience. Children, who do not ask about rules, seem uninterested in the game. They may find it difficult to follow the rules because they do not understand and were afraid or unable to ask. This may result to a lower likelihood of being included in more play opportunities with the same group of children later on.

6. Play assists in developing sentence length.

Children learn the speech and language behaviors of their peers because they copy what they hear or see often. Having an expert model helps in encouraging good grammar and syntax. Play helps put the child at ease in acknowledging that language is a natural part of play. “I will be the witch and you will be the prince! I am going to turn you into a frog!”. Language is used to set the scene, with or without toys. Spaceships, mountains, caves, desert – play takes children on an adventure without leaving the comforts of their living room – or that couch fortress.

7. Play enriches understanding of nonverbal behaviors.

Play interactions aren‟t always verbal in nature. As with communication, only 35% of communication relies on words: most of it is based on gestures, body movements, tone of voice and facial expressions. How many cute baby videos have you watched in which the babies play with their fathers without a single word being uttered? Play does not cease to be enjoyable and meaningful if it starts out with no words uttered. Being able to respond to a playmate‟s bid for attention (a tap on the back), an object (pointing towards a train beside you), help (giving you a toy box he cannot open himself) is still communication. Being wellversed in nonverbal language is a significant skill that can be carried on well into adulthood.

8. Play encourages more play.

Most importantly, successful and enjoyable play opportunities make way for more opportunities. People become good at things they practice most – and the more frequently success and fun is experienced in play, the more that children are motivated to find play opportunities and put in their best behavior and efforts at being a good play participant. Actively participating in play and being oriented to what happends in the environment sure beats staring at a rectangular piece of equipment swiping the time away with your pointer finger. Play is good, healthy, inexpensive and learning-filled. Let your child play – today!

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