Words and play: Building block for language

Play provides learning opportunities for children to develop their language skills through a variety of activities. Babies’ communication with their “playmates” (parents, siblings, other children) starts through non-verbal gestures, supported by initial oral communication (coos, babble and crying) and playful engagement helps them to develop their language skills. Similarly, toys such as rattles (home-made ones work just as well) teach babies about the sensory properties of objects: how it feels, its weight, its sound when moved, among others, which are all woven into language development.

This happens from an early age and continues throughout childhood. Babies watch their parents’ activities and facial expressions and listen to them while they engage, nurture and play with them. They observe others and start to learn verbal and non-verbal cues (language). These are later imitated when they play. The coos and babbling that the baby makes while being engaged safely and playfully with adults start to lay the foundation for language and communication.

When toddlers and pre-schoolers engage in fantasy play, children talk to each other while dressing up and pretending to be someone else. Also when children are playing with blocks and other objects to construct something, such as a house or a tower, it coincides with a discussion about who is building what and who will be living in which house. Adults need to use these moments to observe and encourage the use of language by asking questions about the activity that is underway to expand children’s vocabulary and promote language development. Children then playfully learn new words and how to explain certain activities.

Storytelling is an excellent and interactive way to develop language with young children. Through storytelling they can ask questions, have discussions about what they think would happen next or they can be asked to re-tell the story in their own way (e.g. words, drawing, acting it out). When children have the opportunity to talk about their play activities it helps them practice how to pronounce new words and develop the language skills crucial for future learning.

Language development for young children is encouraged and strengthened when you actively engage with the child and follow her lead. Discover what she is interested in, e.g. when a child points to a flower, you can say “flower”, or when she says leaf you can say “green leaf” affirming the child’s vocabulary while teaching new words playfully — or finding different colour leaves in autumn.

During outside play there are also a lot of things that can be discussed and talked about. For example, when children run around outside you can ask them questions such as who is running fast or slow, or whether they can run around the tree and come back, let’s count how many steps to the gate etc. It is important to use this opportunity to talk about their surroundings and what they feel, see, hear and smell. Through this playful, interactive way children make sense of the world around them, learn to communicate effectively and use language with confidence.

The message is clear — play and language development are knitted together and facilitate the development of vocabulary and expression that leads to forming concepts needed for future formal learning.

Marie-Louise Samuels is director of early childhood development at the department of basic education

Play is the brain’s favourite way of learning

A baby’s brain cells make 700 to 1 000 new connections every second

Too often we are made to believe that our biology (DNA) determines our destiny in life. The good news is that our destiny is also determined by the way we nurture and stimulate the development of the human brain from conception. The brain thrives on experiences that establish new neural connections and pathways, and play is a perfect way to provide these experiences for infants and young children, particularly as play influences and advances exploration, thinking, problem-solving, and language expression.

Attentive and nurturing caregiving including interactive play helps a child develop the skills needed to learn. As children learn through play they are literally building their brains. That is why they need concrete experiences and early stimulation to make sense of the world around them. Babies’ brains develop in response to what goes on around them — good and bad — with long-lasting consequences. A three-year-old’s brain is twice as active as an adult’s, and needs a variety of stimulating activities for her development and learning.

Many scientists and child development specialists indicate that as much as evidence shows that play is essential for brain development, there is also evidence emerging that play deprivation (i.e. absence of stimulation) adversely affects brain growth. This is worsened by other critical factors such as lack of adequate nutrition, the absence of a responsive, nurturing relationship and toxic stress (physical and emotional abuse, chronic neglect and the accumulated effects of poverty).

The answer is simple — adequate nutrition, responsive caregiving and nurturing and active age appropriate stimulation through play can positively influence a young child’s genetic predispositions and alter the brain’s architecture for life.

Mari Payne is an early childhood development consultant at Unicef South Africa

From the womb to the boardroom

Play is inherently human. It is natural. It starts before birth. Mothers feel the playful movement of the unborn quite early. Combined with a sense of hearing, babies start learning early, before coming into the world. Once in the world, they continue playing to develop and learn. Knowledge as we know it is an awareness or understanding acquired through experiences or education by perceiving, discovering or learning. Who can dispute the role of play in that?

Play gives us an avenue for expressing who we are: the talent in us, the love we have, the sharing, everything around us. It shapes our thoughts. It helps form our reaction to phenomena around us. There is no adulthood without childhood, and the cumulative learning we get, the skills we develop, the wisdom we muster, all begin with play, in various forms and at various stages.

When children play, they learn to socialize, develop early concepts in Math, Science, Geography, the universe, virtually all aspects of existence. Within the school system, the perception of Math being a maze, geography a bore and language a drag, are all due to how it is delivered: traditional, regimented approach devoid of playful presentation with teachers trained in a methodology that sees children as slates on which to impart knowledge rather than as knowledge bearers themselves capable of thought and novelty.

Children discover their talents and develop a liking for knowledge through play, and the cyclic nature of it is that the more we engage in it, the better we become. Even difficult situations become bearable, and we learn to cope with and overcome them. If we could recognise that fun in learning takes away the trauma, stresses and difficulties among children, they would learn better, and we will have less complaints of school failure.

Changing school performance, exam results and outcomes of education do not start with the text book – it starts with the foundations that are laid and sustained through play from the start.

Dr Wycliffe Otieno is Chief of Education and Adolescent Development at Unicef South Africa 

Essential facts about play

Learning through play starts with parents in the home• Play offers the opportunity for every parent to engage with his or her child and build healthy attachments and relationships.

  • Parents respond naturally to their children’s need to learn through play, and this instinctive ability needs to be respected and kindled.
  • A child’s home is the primary learning environment where children play, learn and develop with the support of parents, caregivers, older siblings and family members.
  • Parents need information and support to enrich learning though play for their children from the start.
  • Play stimulates healthy brain development• Evidence shows that brain development and growth, and the establishment of new neural connections and pathways, are influenced and advanced through exploration, thinking, problem solving and language expression that occurs during play.

  • Play impacts on the architectural foundation of development such as the physical and chemical development of
  • the brain, which influences the child’s ability to adapt to, survive, thrive in and shape their social and physical environments.

  • Scientists argue that as much as evidence shows that play is essential for brain development, there is also evidence emerging that play deprivation adversely affects brain growth.
  • The brain develops quickly in the first few years of life and the structure of the brain is shaped by the interaction between the child’s genes and his or her experiences (stimulation, play, language, safety). 
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