What can I do to properly play with my child so they learn to communicate and talk?


Think about a word your child definitely understands. I can guarantee that a lot of you thought of words such as cracker, sleep, more, drink, shoes, car, teddy, wash, doll!

Now, what do all these words have in common? They’re all part of your child’s daily experiences and playtime. This is how kids learn words and concepts; through play and daily experiences, and their brains are wired to learn even more language when engaged in conversation with adults (Zimmerman et al., 2009).

So before expecting your child to achieve their next communication milestone, first, focus on what YOU can do to get them engaged and learning through play and daily routines. Here are the three most common mistakes adults make when playing with little ones, and strategies on how to overcome these mistakes that YOU can do right now.

Mistake 1 – Ignoring what they say and do

When you don’t take notice of your child’s interests or communicative turns in play, it results in a very unbalanced interaction, whereby you miss vital opportunities to engage and teach your child.

What to do instead?

Watch & listen during play, so you can really connect with your child, notice what they’re interested in and what messages they’re trying to convey to you (either by sound, gesture or words). Acknowledging their interests and messages will enable you to connect with them and add language that is relevant to the moment.

Watching and listening is the first step to teaching your child effectively through play! Give it a go by noticing your child actions, gestures, sounds and words!

Mistake 2 – Taking the lead and directing the play

This will no doubt result in your child losing interest in you and the activity. They may get frustrated and annoyed and won’t have an opportunity to initiate play and communication with you. This can really be an interaction STOPPER!

What do instead?

Focus on letting your child lead the play. This means, follow what they want to do, what interests them, and not worry about the outcome of the play routine, or how it “should be done”. Here is a summary of strategies you can do to let your child lead more in play:

  • Watch and listen to what they say and do, as above.
  • Include what interests them and follow what they want to do.
  • Interpret their messages with a comment (e.g. child reaches > you say “more” / child grabs a toy > you say “you found teddy”).
  • Comment on what is happening (e.g. I see a cat/oh no that’s tricky/put it in). Refrain from asking too many questions.
  • Copy their actions and sounds in a playful manner. This is a great way to join in without directing the play.

Mistake 3 – Not participating in the play

Ok yes, I have recommended that you watch and listen during play BUT that does not mean you cannot play too. The last thing you want, is to be a “watcher parent” with no interaction or connection with your little one. As I mentioned, children are wired to learn through interaction with others, so participating and joining-in is essential!

What do instead?

Some strategies you can do to participate and join the play are:

  • Have enough toys for both of you!
  • Copy their actions and sounds. This is much easier when you have toys for you too.
  • Think of the play as a back-and-forth conversation. Let your child have a turn through either; their gestures, actions, sounds or words, then you have a turn. Continue this so the play is balanced.
  • Most importantly, play like a kid and be silly!

All my best,


Zimmerman, F. J., Gilkerson, J., Richards, J. A., Christakis, D. A., Xu, D., Gray, S., & Yapanel, U. (2009). Teaching by Listening: The Importance of Adult-Child Conversations to Language Development. Pediatrics, 124(1), 342-349.


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