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  • Casey Schneller, M.A., CCC-SLP

Learning Through PLAY

If your young child is receiving speech therapy, you may be wondering why each session consists of so much playtime. Well, that’s because children learn through play! There is a direct relationship between play and learning and it is your child’s job to play. Play is an educationally powerful process where learning occurs spontaneously, even without adult intervention. As therapists, we shape this play and give it structure so we can use it as a vehicle to stimulate language. By meeting children where they are in their play skills, we are able to interact with them in stimulable ways to encourage growth in language development.

Here are some natural stages of play that children engage and learn in:

  1. Unoccupied play: a play stage where babies are learning about their environment by making movements with no clear objective.

  2. Solitary play: a play stage where children play by themselves, allowing them to think, explore and learn to regulate their emotions.

  3. Onlooker play: a play stage where children do not engage in play with others, however they observe others in play. In this stage they are learning by watching others, which is important for imitation skills.

  4. Parallel play: a play stage where children play independently, near other children. This kind of play helps improve observational skills and helps children learn how to interact with their peers. It is the first step towards social relationships with peers outside of the family.

  5. Associative play: a play stage where children will interact with each other while playing with similar toys. In this stage, the children are learning to share and communicate while forming friendships.

During speech therapy sessions, your therapist will engage with your child through whichever play stage he/she is comfortable with. Through play, your child will learn many skills that are necessary before they are able to talk and communicate wants and needs. Playing in therapy can help your child learn to:

  1. React/respond to the environment and people. This is important because communication always involves responding.

  2. Take turns. Turn taking is the foundation of communication and conversation.

  3. Develop a longer attention span for opportunities to learn. If you can’t attend, you can’t learn.

  4. Share joint attention with a communication partner. This helps them learn to listen and learn key words.

  5. Understand simple directions. A child must understand before they can talk and communicate.

  6. Imitate actions, gestures, sounds and words. Children learn by repeating what others say and do.

  7. Initiate interactions. Children need to learn to initiate interactions to get wants and needs met.

Next time your child’s therapist is engaging in play therapy, join the fun!

Casey Schneller, M.A., CCC-SLP



1. Pellegrini AD, Smith PK. Physical activity play: The nature and function of a neglected aspect of play. Child Development 1998;69(3):577-598.

2. Smith PK. Children’s play and its role in early development: A re-evaluation of the ‘Play Ethos’. In: Pellegrini AD, ed. Psychological Bases for Early education. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons Ltd.; 1988: 207-226.

3. Smith PK. Children and Play. New York, NY: J. Wiley. In press.

4. Parten M. Social participation among preschool children. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 1932;27:243-269.

5. Pellegrini AD, Gustafson K. Boys’ and girls’ uses of objects for exploration, play, and tools in early childhood. In: Pellegrini AD, Smith PK, eds. The Nature of Play: Great Apes and Humans New York, NY: Guilford Press; 2005: 113-138.



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