By: Abigael Gray, MS, CCC-SLP
NESCA Speech-Language Pathologist
As a speech-language pathologist, I immediately think about toys and games when planning my therapy sessions. Parents may wonder why speech-language therapy often looks like “just playing.” Children learn about their world through play. It facilitates their cognitive, emotional, physical, and social development. As young children develop, they begin understanding, learning how to communicate, and socializing within the context of play.
As I discussed in my last blog post, Five Ways to Facilitate Language Growth at Home, motivation and interest are key in language development, and play is highly motivating and interesting for children. When children learn in the context of play, these new concepts, sounds, and words became relevant and meaningful to the child. This promotes retention and generalization, which both increase learning.
Symbolic play is especially important in the development of language. Symbolic play is the use of objects to represent other objects (e.g., using a block as a phone). Language itself is symbolic since signs, gestures, and words represent ideas, objects, or relationships. Early symbolic play helps children understand that objects can be used to represent another object. Development of symbolic play often correlates with development of language: children often start to use single words when they begin using one object to represent another, and they may begin combining words when they combine two symbolic play actions.
Speech-language pathologists may even use play within assessment. Play in evaluations “is a nonthreatening way to gather information about general symbolic skills, linguistic skills, behaviors skills (i.e., attention and organization), and task persistence in a child-friendly setting” (Fewell & Rich, 1987; Short et al., 2011). I also use play to take language samples, which allows me to look at language understanding and use in a naturalistic environment.
For my older elementary- or middle school-aged clients, play often looks like playing games in therapy. The turn taking of games mimics the social reciprocity that we see in conversation and social communication. This facilitates older children’s understanding of taking the lead when it is their turn and waiting, listening, and watching when it is the other person’s turn. I also find more willingness to participate in therapy when it is fun and centered around specific interests.
In my opinion, we are never too old to play! I’ve found that most people learn and retain information better within the context of fun and enjoyable activities, which is why play is such an important aspect of speech-language therapy.
Jarrold C, Boucher J, Smith P. Symbolic play in autism: a review. J Autism Dev Disord. 1993 Jun;23(2):281-307. doi: 10.1007/BF01046221. PMID: 7687245.
Short EJ, Schindler RC, Obeid R, Noeder MM, Hlavaty LE, Gross SI, Lewis B, Russ S, Manos MM. Examining the Role of Language in Play Among Children With and Without Developmental Disabilities. Lang Speech Hear Serv Sch. 2020 Jul 15;51(3):795-806. doi: 10.1044/2020_LSHSS-19-00084. Epub 2020 May 13. PMID: 32402229.
Terrell, B. Y., Schwartz, R. G., Prelock, P. A., & Messick, C. K. (1984). Symbolic play in normal and language-impaired children. Journal of Speech & Hearing Research, 27(3), 424–429. https://doi.org/10.1044/jshr.2703.424
About the Author
Abigael Gray has over six years of experience in assessment and treatment of a variety of disorders, including dysphagia, childhood apraxia of speech, speech sound disorder, receptive and expressive language disorder, autism spectrum disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. She has a special interest and experience in working with children with feeding and swallowing disorders, including transitioning infants to solid foods, weaning from tube feeding, improving sensory tolerance, developing chewing skills, increasing variety and volume of nutritional intake and reducing avoidance behaviors during mealtimes.
To book an appointment with or to learn more about NESCA’s Speech & Language Therapy, please fill out our online Intake Form, email NESCA’s Director of Clinical Services Julie Robinson or call 617-658-9800.
Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Massachusetts, Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email email@example.com or call 617-658-9800.