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In recent weeks, we’ve been looking at the real importance of play for learning to talk. Play, after all, is the thing that toddlers do best. Learning to pretend in his play is one of your child’s ways of understanding symbols, getting ready for the highly complex way he’ll be using words and grammar to express his meaning before long.
Here’s one of my favourite toys for helping your child to talk.
Remember that learning to symbolise is a sophisticated skill. Your child needs to go through the full sequence of development, in the right order, to learn about symbols. He needs to see, feel, hear, touch and taste real objects, finding out what they can do, before he plays with miniature people, houses and cars.
He puts a few objects together in play, finding out that they’re still there even when he can’t see them and seeing how they relate to each other. Then he gradually advances to play sequences, where he can carry out whole teddy tea parties or pretend bath times.
He can’t skip from the first exploratory stage to complicated play sequences, no matter how many times you show him, until he’s ready.
His nervous system develops gradually. Remember that the pathways between the neurons in his brain are still developing fast in his first three years. He needs to repeat activities many times. At last the pathway becomes permanent through constant use, just like the path a cat wears in the garden from the door to her favourite sleeping quarters.
Play: your role
While your child investigates and experiments, your task is to encourage his play and offer him opportunities to develop to the next stage. Let him take his time. Think of yourself as a facilitator or helper, offering opportunities not lessons, and be guided by the things he enjoys. Be prepared to observe him, provide what he needs and play with him.
Join in with him. Give him opportunities to extend his play. Recognise that he’s constantly learning. As he pours water into a jar, he learns about volume, fluids and size. Use the words “water”, “pour” and “big” or “small” as you play with him.
When he starts to play with two objects together, at around a year old, you can help by offering boxes to put things in and bricks to build up. Let him bang his spoon on the (plastic) plate and rattle it in the cup. You can clean up the mess later.
Enjoy doll’s tea parties together, bath teddy and dress him before putting him to bed. Build up play sequences. Introduce smaller toys and less obvious representations of the real thing, such as Duplo characters.
Match toys to pictures in books, saying ‘Look, shoes like yours,’ pointing at the picture, then at your child’s shoes.
Play activities: Teddy’s tea party
Spend time setting out a tea table. If you can get hold of a table and chairs that are a suitable size for Teddy to sit on, they’re ideal. Otherwise, use the family dining table, or a child – sized table. Include places for Teddy along with one or two other toys. Set the table with plates, spoons, cups, saucers, teapots, milk jugs and play food if you have it, and sit Teddy and his friends on their chairs.
Let your child play happily with the tea things, and join in with him. Offer Teddy a drink, and suggest your child offers a drink to another toy, or some pretend food. Use simple language, such as “Teddy’s hungry”, “Teddy’s drinking”, “give Teddy a biscuit”.
Try making a pretend cup of tea by “pouring” from the teapot and milk jug into the cups, and stirring with a spoon. As he grows, your child will join with longer sequences.
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