Role of Play in Speech and Language Interventions

Speech Therapy
Role of Play in Speech and Language Interventions

Play is not just about having fun; it’s about a child taking risks, experimenting, imagining, problem solving, critical thinking, reasoning and testing boundaries with no specific purpose. It is joyful and voluntary.

Fred Rogers rightly says - “Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.

Speech language pathologists often use play in their interventions with young children. Sometimes, when a person with no prior knowledge of speech therapy watches a session, they may wonder why are they just playing?! In real, the therapist is engaging with the child using activities that is deeply motivating, to elicit expressive speech and facilitate language reception. Research evidence suggests that children are indeed more likely to use complex language when they play than when they do not (Bergen and Mauer 2000; Christie and Enz 1992; Christie and Roskos 2006; Singer 1998).

Child led play and adult guided play are the two significant methods of play in speech interventions. Child directed play is all about allowing the child to take the lead. The toys, the tools, and the activity are decided by the child. Further, the child decides when to start and when to stop.

Adult guided play on the other hand, is to follow the child’s lead while channelising play to reach an end goal. With an adult who is sensitive and responsive in picking activities of high interest, the child has the benefits of learning more vocabulary, because the adult is talking about what interests the child.

Both child led and adult guided play have their benefits in a speech therapy session. The therapist needs to be sensitive in deciphering what can benefit the child the most at a given point in time and make the most out of a session.

Here are at least three ways in which play promotes language learning in children with a delayed speech and language development.

  1. Learning new vocabulary: When children are engaged in activities of deep interest they speak more and or engage longer. This opens avenues to enable the child to acquire language from the environment without having to consciously make an effort to learn. This includes new words, phrases and acquiring meaning to those words contextually.
  1. Learning grammatical markers: During play children have the opportunity to listen to sentences which have grammatical structures including; but not limited to, prepositions, pronouns, articles, plurals etcetera. There is a lot of exchange happening between the play partners, which facilitates learning these grammatical markers at faster pace. As per research of Bruner (1983), the most complicated grammatical and pragmatic forms of language appear first in play activity.
  1. Learning social interactions: Interactions are the ‘give and take’ between two people. It includes words, facial expressions, and communicating intent through gestures and whole-body movements. During a play activity, longer engagements are possible compared to conventional teaching methods. This enables children to give longer attention with a play partner and facilitates turn taking, joint attention or taking the lead which are crucial for reciprocal communication.

There is enough evidence in literature to support play-based interventions. Children are more likely to use complex language when they play than when they do not (Bergen and Mauer 2000; Christie and Enz 1992; Christie and Roskos 2006; Singer 1998).

I encourage parents and therapists to splurge all your creativity with your children. You will see how they thrive and make optimal progress.


By, Chitra Thadathil

Speech Language Pathologist

Founder and Director

Dimensions Centre for Child Development



Bergen, Doris, and Daria Mauer. 2000. “Symbolic Play, Phonological Awareness, and Literacy Skills at Three Age Levels.” In Play and Literacy in Early Childhood: Research from Multiple Perspectives, edited by Kathleen A. Roskos and James F. Christie, 45–62.

Bruner, Jerome. 1983. Child’s Talk: Learning to Use Language.

Christie, James F., and Billie Enz. 1992. “The Effects of Literacy Play Interventions o Talking It Up 51 Preschoolers’ Play Patterns and Literacy Development.” Early Education and Development 3:205–20. Christie, James F., and Kathleen A. Roskos. 2006. “Standards, Science, and the Role of Play in Early Literacy Education.” In Play = Learning: How Play Motivates and Enhances Children’s Cognitive and Social-Emotional Growth, edited by Dorothy G. Singer, Roberta M. Golinkoff, and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, 57–73.

Singer, Jerome L. 1998. “Imaginative Play in Early Childhood: A Foundation for Adaptive Emotional and Cognitive Development.” International Medical Journal 5:93–100.



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