Help Your Child Talk: Language and Pretend Play

Here’s extract 19 from How To Help Your Child Talk and Grow Smarter: your chance to learn more about the way your child learns to talk.
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Language and pretend play
Language is a system of symbols; a mix of sounds, gestures and marks that we put together according to commonly agreed sets of rules, and that we use to encode and decode information. 
You use language labels to describe activities because it helps you to think about them in an organised way. You label things to make sense of life. It takes your child a long time to learn to talk, because language is one of the highest level activities he learns.
Your child gradually learns that language is useful, because it helps him get what he needs, ask for things he wants, complain when he can’t have what he wants, tell you when something hurts, and where it hurts. Later, he’ll use language to exchange more complex information, even to tell jokes.

Your child spends much of his time playing.

Play is what he does. He enjoys it. He likes finding out new things, discovering how things move, what they feel like, how they smell and sound. The more he enjoys his activities, the better he learns. 

Through his play,from investigating by putting objects in his mouth, through to pretending to give his teddy a drink, he learns the role that toys, pictures, gestures and words have in helping him communicate.

Play: representation
When your toddler offers you a cup of pretend tea from a miniature cup, and you pretend to drink it, nobody’s fooled. He knows as well as you do there is no ‘real’ tea in the cup. What’s more, he knows you know. 


The toy cup represents a real cup of tea, and the situation represents a real-life action he knows well. It represents, or symbolises, one person giving a cup of tea to another.


A picture of a cup, the word ‘cup’ and a hand sign for ‘cup’ are all symbols that stands for a real cup, just as his toy cup does. 

Your baby and toddler gradually, over many months, learns to develop his understanding of symbols. He begins with real objects. He uses his five senses: sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell, to learn everything he can about these. 

Next, he recognises the relationship between a toy and the real thing, before he learns how a picture or a physical sign, such as waving bye-bye, can represent an object or action. 

Finally, he learns the words: the labels that also symbolise the real object.  When he reaches school age, he moves on to recognising letters and numbers, and how they symbolise less concrete, more abstract ideas. Pretend play is part of the process.   

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