Playful language and communication

Editor’s note: In the “Becoming Brilliant” blog series, experts explore the six competencies that reflect how children learn and grow as laid out by Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Roberta Golinkoff in their new book Becoming Brilliant.”

As parents, our days are filled with to-do lists—dropping children at school or daycare, commuting to work, doing laundry, changing diapers, cooking child-friendly meals, shooting off texts and emails, and so forth. Our minds are chore-filled stopwatches—ticking away as we rush to the finish line and collapse at the end of the day, only to realize that we have forgotten to do something.

Young children, in contrast, do not keep a running tally of what needs to get done. They exhibit no urgency (which is a reason why as parents we become frustrated when children stall just when it’s time to get out the door!). Children are spontaneous and live in the moment. And play is a huge part of living in the moment. Toddlers meander from room to room with no apparent goal but to have fun; they stop to pick up a toy or book here and there; they plop down to build something with blocks or to bang on their play piano; they push cars and trucks along the floor, belting out “vroom, vroom”; and even when they are expected to do something else, they find a way to play —as when a toddler finger paints with her food.

Developmental scientists have long considered play to be an important vehicle for learning. In our research, we often observe toddlers in the natural settings of their homes. We find that over half of a toddler’s wake time is spent playing with toys and other objects. And, toddlers are eager to share their play activities with their parents. As they play, toddlers engage in a rich variety of actions whose sole purpose is to get mom or dad to take a break from their chores, put down the phone, and join in the fun. Toddlers point to things they find to be interesting, carry toys over to parents to share, hold up objects to “show” parents, and turn to parents for help when they are unable to do something with a toy (such as requesting assistance placing blocks in a shape sorter). These communicative behaviors are called “social bids,” since toddlers are in essence bidding the adult for social attention. Impressively, in a brief span of one hour, 13-month old toddlers bid their mothers 16 times (on average), which means they are likely to display 160 bids in a typical 10-hour period of wake time. The frequent social bids of toddlers present parents with ideal teaching moments.

So what should a parent do when a toddler extends an invitation to play?

Parents can take advantage of children’s natural curiosity and motivation to play as a way to teach children about the world and build toddlers’ vocabulary. Research consistently indicates that mothers and fathers who promptly respond to infants’ bids and play behaviors—by labeling, describing, and asking questions about the objects and events that are of interest to their children—promote vocabulary growth and knowledge about the world. In turn, toddlers develop a large vocabulary arming them with the skills they need to do well in school. In fact, researchers have documented associations between parent responsiveness during play and toddlers’ language development in families from a wide range of backgrounds.

But how does parent responsiveness improve toddler vocabulary?

Responsive language matters because children are likely to learn the words for things that are of interest to them. When parents engage in playful language, they facilitate the child’s task of connecting “words” to “world.” Parents can use play as a way to teach scientific concepts around math and space—such as counting how many beads are on a string, talking about sizes and shapes of objects, and how certain objects are on top of, under, or next to other objects. Parents can participate in toddler play by suggesting ways to extend and elaborate on the play theme. For instance, when a toddler picks up a toy bottle and doll, parents can suggest the toddler “feed the baby,” and “then clean the baby,” and “put the baby to sleep.” These types of pretend scenarios with parents are more advanced, complex, and sustained than play alone; which, as a result, build a child’s imagination, understanding of the world, vocabulary, and even social skills.

Unfortunately, the understanding of the importance of play has not yet reached the masses, and practically speaking, it is difficult to take time out of a busy schedule to attend to children’s play interests. Parents often miss toddlers’ bids to play, or respond with a minimal “thank you!” as they turn back to whatever to-do item is next on their list. Sometimes parents remark that they are not children’s play partners, that sibling or peers should do the playing. Yet, with a little imagination, play can be a part of everyday chores.

As a professional and parent of three, I had to be creative in my approach to play. When I was busy cooking, I would place a large pot of water, wooden spoon, and potatoes on the floor, and my toddlers would “cook” along with me as we talked about the food. When I had a call to make for work, my daughter had a toy phone in hand and pretended to call her friends too. And when those social bids came along, I took a moment to chat about the color, size, shape, and name of the objects, and what might be done with those objects. Messages about the importance of play—the most common activity of infancy and toddlerhood—need to be circulated to key stakeholders in children’s learning and development. Parents must recognize the enormous benefits of playful language and take a pause (or, perhaps, 160 pauses) to respond to their toddlers’ bids and live in the moment.