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Learning to talk is child's play

Children are experts in play. It's their job.

Children play all the time. They play with bricks, or with sand and water, they dress up in 'grown-up' clothes, they play chasing and catching games.

Why does this matter? Well, they need to find out about the world: the sizes, shapes and feel of things, that hard things hurt, that soft things are comfortable. Later on, they'll find out that you can't fit a gallon into a pint pot. Babies and young children teach themselves these and a million other facts of life through their play.

It also helps them to develop their speech and language. There are two main reasons for this.

Firstly it helps because language is an especially sophisticated system of symbols, and playing, especially with miniature toys and pictures, helps children to develop their ability to understand symbols.

Secondly because this sort of play is fun and stimulating, and they'll want to communicate what they're doing to you, so you will have plenty of opportunities to talk.

Why is pretending important?
When a toddler offers you a cup of pretend tea from a miniature cup, and you pretend to drink it, nobody is fooled. The child knows as well as you do that there is no 'real' tea in the cup. What's more, he knows you know.

The cup represents a real cup of tea, and the situation represents a real-life action he'll have seen. It represents, or symbolises, one person giving a cup of tea to another.

The word 'cup' is a symbol that stands for a real cup, just as the child's toy cup does.

So, help your child to develop symbolisation or 'pretending' abilities.

How does pretend play develop?
It starts with looking closely at his toys. Rattles, soft toys, a mother's earrings: they all come in for the 'see it, feel it, suck it' treatment. Your child needs to explore what these things are before moving on to the next stage.

This is when he is experiments with how things go together.

Soon you'll see real 'pretending' as he uses a toy teacup to pretend to drink. At first he does these actions to himself, but then he'll offer a 'drink' to teddy or brush dolly's hair.

Now you can see that teddy is like a real person to him. He might kiss him, wash him, start to reproduce aspects of his own life through his play with a teddy or a doll.

Soon, he'll carry out whole sequences of pretend play. This is the age of the doll's tea party or putting teddy to bed.

Your child may be three before he reaches this stage, although many two-year-olds have a wide repertoire of pretend play.

This is a sign that he can do three very important things:
he understands the symbolic nature of toys,

he can carry out a logical sequence of events,

he has enough concentration to play continuously for several minutes.

This is quite a combination of abilities. He is an 'expert' in play.

How can I help?
Remember these are developmental stages. Your child won'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.

Play alongside your child, offering him chances to develop to the next stage, but never trying to force him. Don't try to teach. Think of yourself as a facilitator or helper, offering opportunities not lessons, and be guided by the things that he enjoys.

Start by watching what he is doing. What stage is he at? Is he examining one object closely, feeling it, mouthing it? If so, let him have one thing at a time to investigate. At this stage he doesn?t need a cot full of stuff, however pretty it may look to an adult. He can only think about one thing at a time, so let him have one thing at a time. When he is bored offer him something else. Be careful to avoid bombarding him with too many things at once.

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.

Above all, have fun with him. This kind of play is for anyone. Even relatives who 'don't know how to talk to children' will love to join in tea parties, in dressing dolly games and in pretending to bath teddy and put him to bed.