Ages & Stages

How to Foster Early Language Skills Through Play

play for language development"
play for language development
Source: Steph Alleva Cornell
Source: Steph Alleva Cornell

As a pediatric speech and language pathologist and a parenting coach, I often support families in fostering language skills for their little ones. As parents, we spend so much time with our children that we begin to understand every little sound and expression they make.

We become their best interpreters, often decoding the slightest whimpers and knowing exactly what they need. But to help our kids develop and expand their language skills requires us to practice self-restraint.

What does that mean? Parents are the best at anticipating their child’s needs, even before the child has a chance to communicate them. For example, it’s close to snack time, and your child ventures into the kitchen and heads straight for the pantry. You already know their favorite snack, and to meet their needs, you swiftly open the pantry, grab the favorite snack and offer it up immediately. They walk over to the pantry but struggle to open the door and look at you. It gets tricky here, but I would tell you to simply wait and see. If your child’s language is just beginning to emerge, they may say, open, or may look at you and name the desired snack, such as crackers? You can model the word if their language is just emerging. If your child can’t imitate words, you can offer a sign for the item they want.

With self-restraint as the foundation, here are some additional ways to foster early language skills:



For Children 10-12 Months


Use Their Name Often

As babies begin to develop, they are masterfully observing their environment well before they start to speak. Though they don’t always respond to a parent talking, they’re listening. With that said, we want a baby to respond to their name as they get closer to a year.

Playtime tips: Trying this out in play is helpful because they learn to stop what they’re doing and attend to the speaker. Help them by saying their name frequently throughout the day, especially when you greet them. You usually have their undivided attention during greetings. When a baby stops and responds to their name, you’re building foundational communication skills and increasing their focus and attention.


Teach Baby Sign Language

By teaching the sign for the specific item, you begin to increase your child’s vocabulary. While anticipating their needs is fantastic, giving them the space to communicate with you will increase their language skills. Teaching babies how to sign in play is helpful because they’re motivated.

Playtime tip: For example, if your baby loves when you blow bubbles, teach them the sign for bubbles and help them use the sign in a functional way. Once baby uses the sign, say the verbal request (you want bubbles) and then blow the bubbles. This sequence will motivate your baby to continue to use the sign until they can produce words. Using signs helps teach babies communicative intent. This is the idea that when they want something, they can produce a gesture, sound, or point to an item to gain access to it. Building communicative intent increases connections and trust with a parent or caretaker.


Build Joint Attention in Play

Joint attention is one of the first ways a baby begins to communicate with their parent or caretaker. What is joint attention? It means one person purposefully coordinates their focus of attention with that of another person, according to The University of North Carolina School of Medicine.

Playtime tips: Let’s say the child wants to play with a stuffed animal. The child purposefully focuses their attention on the caretaker. When looking at their caretaker, the child shifts the focus to the stuffed animal and then back to the caretaker. If they could talk, they would say, “Can I play with the stuffed animal?” The baby is using joint attention to communicate. This is an early communicative behavior that we look for in children. We typically expect to see joint attention when the child is around 12 months old.


Focus on Receptive Language

Receptive language is a child’s ability to understand, process and integrate spoken language. This develops in babies well before they can say their first words. As parents, we want to foster the development of receptive language skills because it will increase a child’s expressive language as they develop.

Playtime tips: This can be targeted in play by asking the child to identify body parts and follow simple motor directions such as clap your hands. You can also ask your child to identify common objects by name when playing. For example, you could say, “Where is the car?” Or practicing giving simple directions, such as, give me the ball, can help a child build receptive language skills.


early parenting language

Source: Shutterstock


For Children 12+ Months


Read Repetitive Books

Another great tool for early talkers is reading repetitive books with them. Children love music and books that rhyme or have a repetitive melody, such as Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? By Bill Martin Jr.

Playtime tips: After you’ve read the story a handful of times, try pausing before saying the last word in a sentence. Often the child will fill in the blank. Try this: read, Brown bear, brown bear, what do you ___. When you pause, don’t be surprised if your child excitedly says see! Repetitive books are a great way to get those first words without the pressure of continuously asking your child to imitate you or telling them to say certain words. It takes the performative piece out of the mix, making it fun.

Use this same idea when playing with your child. Take a highly desired item that the child enjoys playing with. Place the item inside a clear box with a lid. We want to encourage the child to ask us to open the box or name the toy to request the item. We build functional communication by creating a condition that encourages the child to express his needs.


Encourage Requesting

I’ve worked with children who can label several common nouns, without realizing they can say that same word to request the item. If you hold up a toy car and ask the child to tell you what it is, they can label it easily.

Playtime tip: We want the child to know they can also come and tell us “car” to indicate that they want to play with one. This is more meaningful than just naming an item. If you know a child has the label, try teaching them to say the word when they want it. This will encourage them to talk because they begin to understand that saying the item yields access to it.


Use Playfulness To Mix Up Predictable Routines

One of my favorite strategies to teach parents is to violate predictable routines. Purposely hand the child the wrong item to encourage them to tell you it’s not what they want.

Playtime tip: If your child is about to eat cereal and needs a spoon, hand them a fork instead and see what they do. Feel free to be silly with this. If they look at you confused and unsure of what to say, ask, “Is that a spoon?” And then say, “Nooo! Silly mommy.” After doing this a few times, they will begin to answer you, “No, that’s a fork!” and you can fade your model. Kids love this, and before you know it, when you start walking over with the wrong item, they’ll say, “No, silly mommy.”


Helping children develop and expand their language skills takes a little creativity and a reminder to sometimes sit back and observe. Parents are fixers and problem solvers, but ultimately we want to give our kids the tools to do this for themselves. When we watch and observe, we give our children the space to communicate in a way that feels right to them. I have often said practicing self-restraint is the hardest but most important thing a parent can do. This couldn’t be more true when helping our children develop early language skills.


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