From novice talker to human dictionary: pretend play’s role in vocabulary.

This week’s blog post has been written by Tasha-Ro Granger, a Year 3 Early Childhood Studies student. She’s focussing on how pretend play can support children’s language development.

‘Play’. A concept that flips the well known saying “easier said than done” on its head!

Play is one of those words that baffles people when asked to define it, yet everyone knows how to do it (Eberle, 2014). This is because it is such a complex activity!

To give you an idea of what I think play is, here is a definition that aligns best with my personal views:

“what children and young people do when they follow their own ideas, in their own way and for their own reasons”.

(Getting Serious about Play, 2004, as cited in Lester and Russell, 2008).

Although academic definitions are useful to some extent, before I discuss how play can help develop vocabulary, I think it is important to get the perspective of the people we are discussing today! So, before you continue reading, try to ask your child, or a child you know, what they think play is and what it involves.

Every child is different, so understanding your own children’s interpretation of play will be far more helpful than any academic’s perspective. For example, some children value play because they can make their own decisions, others enjoy making friends, and some just like to relax (Howe, 2016). By finding out why your child values play, it will help you to create a better play environment for them!

Play is an umbrella term that includes multiple different types of play. However, today I’m only discussing the relationship between pretend play and vocabulary. If you would like to learn more about the broader subject of play, I would recommend this easily accessible document from Play England (no date) called Learning and developing through play.

Pretend play includes imaginative, role and fantasy play which refer to when children act-as-if (Weisberg, 2015). Acting-as-if is when children use their imagination to act-as-if they are someone, or somewhere else for example.

It also includes small world play and socio-dramatic play (Play England, no date). Small world play involves smaller versions of real things such as cars and animals, whilst socio-dramatic play is when children play with others.

Why is pretend play important to vocabulary?

Pretend play is often referred to when discussing language development due to the similarities between the two. For example, both language and pretend play involve the use of symbols (Quinn, Donnelly and Kidd, 2018). In pretend play, children may use one thing to represent something else! For example, a banana might be used as a phone. Here is an example of Ernie from Sesame Street doing just that!                                                                        

This ability to think symbolically is also needed to learn vocabulary. Words are symbols for thoughts, ideas and objects and they are used to represent something else (Quinn, Donnelly and Kidd, 2018). Therefore, as pretend play allows children the opportunity to practice symbolic thinking, it may help to develop their vocabulary at the same time!

As children gain more vocabulary, their imagination is broadened. They start to put themselves into other people’s shoes, sparking new conversations within each new scenario. By children putting themselves in unfamiliar situations, they begin to use words that they wouldn’t normally have the chance to use (Oddo and Castleberry, 2018).

For example, by pretending to be a shopkeeper, or a fireman, children are able to explore different genres of words that they wouldn’t see in a classroom or at home. This allows them to further explore vocabulary.

Another reason why pretend play is important to vocabulary is because it is often completed with friends. By playing with friends, children may take part in Sustained Shared Thinking (Sylva et al, 2004). This is where two or more people work together to develop and further each others thinking.

Think of it as a see-saw (Fisher, 2016). If a child were to play on a see-saw alone, they wouldn’t be able to go anywhere, they would be stuck. However, by having a peer sitting on that see-saw with them, they can lift each other up to new heights, allowing them to discover new information.

Similarly, when playing together, children will often develop and extend their knowledge by bouncing off one another. They are likely to introduce new vocabulary into the interaction that the other is not aware of, learning from each other!

Barriers to play…

Despite the benefits of pretend play, children aren’t always given the opportunities to take part in it. Many adults may cut children’s play short because something else needs to happen, homework for example, but this is the worst thing you can do! If you experience your child playing…

Giving children time to play is so important to allow them to reach their ‘state of flow’ (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). Flow is when someone is completely immersed in what they are doing, and they seem to forget everything that is going on around them.

By allowing children the time to achieve this state of flow through their play, they can increase their happiness and well-being. It also leads them to develop their skills and complete more challenging activities. To achieve flow, the activity needs to be the ‘goldilocks’ of activities, not too boring, not too challenging, just exciting enough!

If you were to repeat the same activity over and over again, you would get bored! Therefore, children will constantly adapt and enhance their activity to make it slightly more challenging so they can achieve flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).

Another barrier to pretend play is education. Playing, exploring, thinking independently and making individual decisions are classed as ‘characteristics of effective learning’ in the Statutory Framework for the Early Years Foundation Stage (Department for Education, 2017). This means that the Department for Education believes that children learn best when they are doing these characteristics, but is this what happens?

Many schools are cutting down on playtime in class and at breaks (Blatchford and Baines, 2006). This is because of the pressure to get young children ‘school ready’ and meet the increasing academic demands of the curriculum. This cuts down on children’s opportunities to meet any of the characteristics of effective learning, negatively affecting their language development.

Play is an important part of the school day to children, they are able to be in control of what they do (Howe, 2016). This makes them more likely to talk to others about what they’re doing, increasing the opportunity for language use. So make a stand!

Stand up against the cuts to playtime and get in contact with local educators, policymakers and the public, promoting the benefits of play.

Here’s how you can help at home!

School is the first place that comes to mind when you think of where children learn, but their home learning environment (HLE) is just as important. The HLE refers to interactions between the child and the relationships they have within and around the home (Smees and Sammons, 2019). If you would like more information about the importance of the HLE, this document from Action for Children may help.

By playing with your child, you’re able to introduce new language, new scenarios, new anything! You’re able to support them and provide enough help to further their learning. This is a process called scaffolding (Wood, Bruner and Ross, 1976).

Scaffolding occurs when you help children develop their understanding of information that is just out of their reach. To scaffold your child’s learning, start with what they know and then encourage and guide exploration into new ideas! This will gently lead them into their zone of proximal development, this is what they can do and understand with help (Vygotsky, 1978).

Here are a few examples of how, but beware! Don’t take over their activity (Wasik and Jacobi-Vessels, 2017).

  • Ask questions relating to their activity, allowing them the chance to use more language.
  • You may also introduce new words in relation to the activity and allow them the chance to use new words they are learning!
  • Make links between the new information and their current understanding, this makes it more likely to stick in their mind!
  • Provide feedback such as repeating what they’re saying, allowing them to hear their thoughts in a more complex sentence.

By providing new vocabulary, and repeating what they say, children will observe and imitate you. This is how children learn a lot of new information and is a process called Social Learning Theory (Bandura, 1977). In order for children to imitate your behaviours their brains go through four processes, attention, retention, reproduction and motivation.

First, the behaviour needs to grab their attention! It needs to be fun in some way for them, which will help them to remember it in order to repeat it.

Next, children can’t reproduce anything this way, it has to be achievable! Don’t immediately start using very complex vocabulary, it will just be confusing!

Lastly, children need to be motivated. Children respond very well to praise and punishment. If they are praised for using good vocabulary, they are more likely to repeat the behaviour! Similarly, if they are corrected for using incorrect vocabulary, they will likely not use it again!

Tips and tricks!

In order to help you encourage and develop your child’s vocabulary use through the use of pretend play, here is some advice based on strategies from Pepper and Weitzman (2004).

  • Be a model! Introduce your child to new words by using it yourself whilst scaffolding. When your child says something is big, respond by saying it’s enormous, when they say something is nice, respond and say it’s fantastic! Provide them with new words and show them how to use them!
  • Take turns! If your child is stuck, feel free to contribute and use open language and activities to inspire them again. But don’t take over! Always pause and wait to allow the child to have a turn to use their imagination and bounce off of you.
  • Avoid obvious toys! The self-explanatory nature of some toys means that children don’t need to imagine what this toy could do because it only has one trait. It also can prevent children from talking to each other! Choose open-ended toys that will challenge them as it has hundreds of different uses.

Finally, don’t be afraid of silliness! As adults, we find it hard to let ourselves go and be silly and imaginative and make scenarios up. This will not benefit any child you’re playing with if you’re being restrictive. Children love to be silly and they want you to be as well, so use your imagination, be silly, maybe you’ll like it!

Further reading

If you would like to find out more about pretend play, language, and how the two collaborate, here are some further websites to look at!

Learning Through Play: The 3 to 4 year old (Documentary Film)

A documentary on how children learn through play, language development is talked about first.

Land of Make Believe

A company run by people with a background in education, running pretend play sessions and offering advice on how to do so yourself.

The role of play in children’s development: a review of the evidence

An in detail review of many studies by Whitebread et al (2017), which discusses how play affects children’s development.

2 thoughts on “From novice talker to human dictionary: pretend play’s role in vocabulary.

  1. Holly Swan

    This is a lovely read. Play is the language of children- so often as adults we forget this and we forget the joy play can bring.
    And what a time to remember the importance of play to alleviate Corona stress!
    Great blog post


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