The overlooked art of playful language
At the lunch table at pre-school today, one child piped up “Can we tell a story? I want a story with a dinosaur”, and so we began our fill-in-the-blanks story: “Once upon a time there was a _____, who was very _____, and her name was _____”. “One day the ______ met a _____...” Never mind that this time one of the children shouted “The End” and the storytelling vanished under clusters of children shouting “The End!” and throwing their heads back in fits of laughter at making the ‘shortest story in the world’, and everyone needed to be reminded to eat their lunch. This storytelling formula is optional, open-ended, child-centred & child-guided, scaffolded by an adult into something bigger and more exciting than the children might have created on their own, and most of all, really fun!
Like any learning of value to a pre-schooler, language is best learnt through playful, joyful experiences with peers and affectionate adults in a hands-on and child-led way. There is a deep and wonderful wisdom in sitting on the floor to watch your pre-verbal toddler at play and letting them take the lead, talking to them about what they are looking at or doing so that the words are brought to life and the meanings take root and begin to flower. We match the language to the level of the child: sounds and gestures, taking turns to vocalise, one word, then two… with lots of repetition and visual cues, so that the child can map the words onto his world in a meaningful way. After all, a stream of speech exists in the physical realm as a stream of continuous soundwaves. A word is a psychosocial construct that exists only in the mind of the listener, once they have learnt to categorise it as such. Children learn to break streams of speech sound into words through repeated and meaningful interactions with their caregivers and siblings. Adults who are sensitive to the current linguistic needs of their child are able to watch their child’s interests and motivations, and to match their input to the child’s current knowledge of language. Responsivity, shared attention, use of turn-taking and use of gesture in a parent are all predictors of a child’s language abilities.
Joy and playfulness in language-learning, such as that of a responsive parent engaging in back and forth cooing with their baby, can and should continue as the child’s linguistic system deepens and expands. Children at the two-year/two-word phase can enjoy fun descriptive words, such as cuddly, sparkly, wiggly, and onomatopoeias, such as splosh, crunch, gurgle… Their vocabulary expands rapidly at this age, and their improving comprehension can mean that they begin to be able to talk about more than the here-and-now, especially events that have just happened. Adults can ask them: “Did the fireworks go ‘bang-crash’?” and adult and child can have fun imitating the bangs and crashes with big gestures and sparkly hands. They are still concrete thinkers at this age, and puppets and props for storytelling are useful and help the child to immerse themselves into the story world.
Once the children become true word combiners and enter the world of make-believe at around 3 years-old they begin to tell little stories (often a little disjointed and of one or two sentences) and make up their own songs. This can be encouraged by an imaginative adult, who makes up songs with simple tunes the child can imitate or start a fill-in-the-blank story. They can use language imaginatively at this age and enter the world of invisible fairies or hide from rampaging dinosaurs. They can express feelings, and the adult can begin to ask the child how a character in a storybook might be feeling to support perspective-taking, adding in the accompanying facial expression. If you leave space to listen, your 3 year old/true word-combiner is better able to discuss something she has initiated herself.
Once the child reaches around 4 years old/language-exploration stage, the child may have a vocabulary approaching 5,000 words, can link two ideas together in a complex sentence and seems to understand everything (!). Despite the presence of a few normal developmental speech sound errors, their language can become quite adult-like, and then there is no end of fun! Language has become a tool for thinking, reasoning, organising, problem-solving and creating. A child with complex language is able to sustain imaginary play sequences with a group of peers. Children at this stage start to enjoy taking part in word-games that play with the structure of sounds within a word, such as rhyming, spoonerisms, and alliteration. You can begin to play games like ‘Who am I’ in which you take turns to ask questions and guess whichever secret character they have decided to be.
Children who are free to direct their own play and solve their own problems (supported by an adult) have a greater sense of self, greater resilience, and enjoy play and work for its own sake. An adult who is playful and adaptive with the language they use with their young children will give a gift rich in meaning and a love of language that surpasses the anxious urge to ‘drill’ a child with ‘What’s this? What’s that?’ or push them into early reading. Read and love books and play together, following your child’s needs, and enjoy each stage as it comes, even if each stage takes a little longer for your child….
Natalie Fletcher practiced Speech & Language Therapy before having two (very talkative) children, and currently works at a pre-school in Winchester. She is one of Pictologue’s expert Volunteers, providing advice and reviews for our ToyBoxes.