Play is an underrated learning tool. We first learn through exploration and imagination. Young children can discover a great deal from a game of pretend; they may develop counting skills as they play supermarket or social-emotional skills when they play with baby dolls. Toys and games are some of our first teachers, and present a fun way for parents and caregivers to engage with their little learners!
Language, too, can be developed through play. In her book Planning for Play, Kristen Kemple presents parents and teachers with ways their children can develop communication skills. From setting up the play space to different activity ideas, this book is a fantastic resource for how to encourage children to learn language while having fun. Here are a few tips to get you and your little learner started:
- Talk with your child. Having a conversation is a fantastic way to teach children language, and what better thing to talk about than their favorite game? If you see your child playing with certain toys, ask her what she’s doing. Talk to her about the characters she’s created and how they're acting; what is the story? While two-and-three year olds may not be the most coherent storytellers, they love to talk about the things they create, and developing a rapport teaches them how to communicate their ideas.
- Make literacy part of the game. Puzzle games are very popular among preschool children. In early childhood, they are beginning to sort things into categories based on shared attributes. Try introducing them to a matching alphabet game. Find cards or toy items that depict things that begin with each letter; then encourage your child to match the uppercase and lowercase letters with each other. In time, children will begin to associate the letter with the sound it makes and be able to recognize the alphabet.
- Play act stories. Lots of popular children’s stories can be recreated with a few costumes. Pick your child’s favorite fairytale or picture book and act it out! Start by reading the book to him, showing him the words on the page. Then make a production out of it. This exercise shows how words can represent real things, and will help him understand the story more clearly. Plus, it’s a great opportunity to have some fun with silly props and voices!
- Make stories out of play acting. Does your child have a favorite make-believe game he likes to play? Maybe he pretends to be a father and cook for his baby, or maybe he imagines himself as a knight that goes off to slay a dragon. Whatever the story, ask your child to tell it to you. Write down what he says, even if it doesn’t make sense. Afterward, add some drawings and show him. He’ll be delighted to see his story written out on the page. Read it together before bedtime; just like the previous game, this solidifies the connection between words and their meaning.