Talking to toddlers while they play transforms language development
Photo: Quinn Dombrowski. Creative Commons. 

Talking to toddlers, while they play, transforms language development in early childhood

By Catherine S. Tamis-LeMonda and , | February 2019 

Parents boost language development in early childhood by naming what children see, touch, smell, taste and do as they play.

What do you see, watching young children wander from one object to another, feeling, holding and playing with whatever they find of interest? In a single hour, toddlers will typically touch around 100 different objects, spending just 10 seconds, on average, playing with each.

In this whirlwind of exploration, I see a huge opportunity for adults. Children’s play offers a chance for them to name and describe what catches their children’s attention. In this way, they can support language development and foster the basic building blocks for literacy, maths and socio-emotional skills. Any parent can do it, but many don’t recognise the benefits that talking can offer.

Parents — and even some educators — mistakenly regard a child’s foraging play as frivolous. Instead of perceiving a wonderfully exuberant, exploring, learning child, some adults worry that their young children are inattentive, too easily distracted, and lacking in concentration.

Some parents will try to persuade their busy two-year-olds to keep playing with the dolly or the building blocks, concerned that toddlers should already be able to meet the requirement for school-age children to sit still and regulate themselves emotionally and behaviourally. They may even fear – as a child moves from one object to another – that this wandering signals the beginnings of eventual failure in class. Sadly, some adults may be happier when children are sitting quietly in front of a screen. In that case, parents may imagine that their children are actively engaged. But, in fact, they are simply mesmerised and not learning much at all.

It’s time to revive the ideal of exuberant children and work alongside them to foster language development in early childhood.  When toddlers wander through space, carrying and fingering things, moving from object to object, they are learning so much about how objects feel and work, and about what they can do to manipulate them or create imaginary play scenes.

“It’s time to revive the ideal of exuberant children … as children engage in different types of play, what they hear from adults can promote specific skills and language development in early childhood.”

Children are also exercising self-agency. Often, they don’t choose toys. Children love to swing doors, press buttons on electronic devices and bang pots as well. Anything can become an object for play. In affluent homes, young children certainly play with an abundance of toys. However, they spend around 40 per cent of their time playing with ordinary household items – remote controls and toilet paper are such fun toys!

Support language development in early childhood

As children play in different ways, what they hear from adults can promote specific skills and language development in early childhood.  For example, when children pretend play – feeding a teddy, say, or putting it to bed –a parent might join in with a supportive narrative. ‘Teddy is hungry – why don’t you feed him,’ mom or dad might ask.  Or they might say: ‘Teddy is tired – is it time to put her to bed?’

language development in early childhood

Photo: docmonstereyes. Creative Commons.

By using internal and mental state words, pretending teddy is hungry or tired, parents help their children appreciate the emotional states that underpin actions, scaffolding children’s understanding of other people’s minds and thoughts. These actions help develop vital social and emotional skills.

Such contingent, responsive conversation from adults—labelling, describing and talking about what interests the child in the moment—has an important impact on language development in early childhood. The process needs attuned, talkative parents. But it also requires freedom for inquisitive, searching children to forage and explore lots of things in the environment during their play. A child who never picked up a candle or a pillow or a spoon would be less likely to hear and therefore learn the words for these objects.

Language development in early childhood helps maths and literacy

When children play with puzzles and blocks, they are likely to hear language for counting and for moving objects: “Put it on top … it’s fallen down … place it next to … behind … around”. Such prepositional phrases are spatial, relational terms that support the development of maths skills. And they all arise from children playing with, and talking about, different objects.

Likewise, play and adult engagement help children learn verbs. Think of all the actions that could be involved with play –for example, turn the knob, press the button, throw the ball, or pull the string. As children manipulate objects and adults respond by labelling possible actions, a vocabulary rich with verbs naturally grows.

Research has sometimes lacked insight into these processes of language development in early childhood. When studying play, researchers tend to give children and their parents some toys and then film their interactions to observe how well the parents are attuned to their children. But these studies have taken place in contrived settings, where parents and children have little else to do besides play with the toys in front of them. We’ve not followed little children in their daily lives to understand what they do in their everyday environments. We have few norms for how children interact with objects under conditions that aren’t artificial.

“Follow the child’s lead. Name the objects that the child touches and find words to describe their actions.”

Lacking a real understanding of what’s OK for young children, I sometimes find, well-off parents worry because, instead of sitting still and playing with his toys, their 15-month old likes to wander off and try different activities.  Parents should not expect toddlers to act like five-year-olds. Sitting still is not developmentally appropriate.

Moving around a lot is evolutionary and adaptive for toddlers and young children. It fits what we know from neuroscience, which shows that synaptic connections grow rapidly in early childhood. These connections will be pruned back in later years as children become more focussed. Adults should talk to toddlers and young children about the objects of children’s play and follow the children’s lead, rather than forcing children to sit still.

Show parents how to support language development in early childhood

It’s important to get this message out to parents. I recently conducted research in the homes of disadvantaged families. I watched exuberant, exploring children touching different toys. But many of those children played amid adult silence. Their parents didn’t view children’s play as an opportunity for learning language. As a result, the children weren’t exposed to valuable language inputs that might help them to connect words to their play actions.

Why not? Parents said their children were occupied and they were happy to let them be. That’s understandable for parents who may see their role as keeping children nourished and safe, and intervening only when children are unhappy. Those roles are paramount. Yet we should also help parents recognise the benefits of talking with children while they are playing. That play is not frivolous. It matters.

Easy for adults to give words to play

Our workshops with parents – which demonstrate how to include language in everything young children do – have been extremely successful. Some parents didn’t understand that children’s everyday activities during play offer valuable opportunities for children to learn language. Once parents were shown this, they found it quite easy to talk about whatever their children were doing.

Such interventions are much simpler than the sometimes complicated child-rearing prescriptions that parenting programmes offer. Our message is straightforward – follow the children’s lead, be it at bath time or play time or during meals. Name the objects that the children touch and find words for their actions. Parents have the tools to do this. They just have to get the message.


Tamis-LeMonda C & Schatz J (2017), Learning language in the context of play. In Horst J & von Koss Torkildsen K (Eds.), International Handbook of Language Acquisition

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