Using problems in play to develop communication


Rosie Quayle discusses how play can be used to develop communication.

“Play is child’s work”. This quote will not be new to us, as play forms the foundation of much of the ‘work’ done in our early years classrooms. But the research is now starting to prove to us that children develop most of their language through some sort of adult-supported play, so we must ask ourselves how we can best support language development in our interaction with young children, especially those with a language delay.

At Auditory Verbal UK, we work with children with hearing loss. Many children enter our programme with a delay in their listening and spoken language skills as a direct result of their hearing loss. Our job is to train their caregivers to maximise their listening and spoken language through everyday play and activities, so the child has no idea they are ‘doing therapy’. This also allows language learning to continue throughout the day, rather than just in an individual therapy session. Through this method we are able to close the gap so that around 80% of the children we work with go to school with listening and spoken language on a par with their hearing peers.

Learning in a playful way

So how can we do this in a playful way? Especially when children often become so engrossed in play that we find ourselves narrating what they are doing, but the back and forth communication and interaction between caregiver and child isn’t actually happening. We want to teach language in a functional way so that the child can make a request, direct people, negate, reject, comment, call, initiate, greet, discuss an event, comforting someone….and the list goes on! 

In this article we will explore how we can set up problems in our play with children to create a need for the child to communicate. We will look at a specific activity for a 12-month-old, a two-and-a-half-year-old and a four-year-old, although they can be easily adapted.


Long before a baby says their first word, they are learning about the underlying ‘why’ of communication. Communication is not just a token exchange system, it is about getting your thoughts

into someone else’s head – sharing an idea with them! So for the 10-12 month-old baby, one of the greatest gifts we can give them is to set up an environment that creates the need to share their thinking. Although their first proto words might be ‘quack’ or ‘moo’ these will typically be as a label for a much repeated word. We can use play to set up simple problems that help them learn other reasons to communicate.

The Game: Ducks and water sensory play

Setting up the play: Have an empty tray and tell the child ‘We’re going to have water for the ducks!’

Pause and say ‘uhoh! There’s no water!’ Signal with your finger and look puzzled – something is missing! Allow the child to take a turn to show you they have understood. This could be through a furrowed brow, saying ‘uhoh’ or looking around for water. You have created a need for them to label a problem to show they are thinking the same thing as you.

Tell the child ‘We need water!’ and show them the water in a jug. Wait to see if the child shows you they’ve understood that it’s the solution to the problem. This might be verbally by copying or a body movement.

Hold the jug above the tray and say ‘pour!’ and then pour a little water. Pause and wait to see if the child will vocalise or copy ‘pour.’ Each time they produce a sound you can pour a little water in. You’re showing them here that they can use their voice to direct you.

You can probably guess what happens next – once all the water is in, there are no ducks! Point to the ducks a distance away and show the child how you can call them ‘quack quack’ and they come a little closer. Pause and wait for the child to vocalise each time they do the duck comes closer. The baby is learning that she can use her voice to call things/ people!

Once the ducks have arrived you can sing ‘five little ducks,’ leaving a pause for the child to vocalise ‘Mummy duck said…..’ Again, it doesn’t have to be an exact word, but you are teaching them that they can join in with singing!

The baby can then have plenty of time to enjoy the duck water play. You might find other problems come up like water being spilled. Label the problem ‘uhoh’ and direct someone to solve it ‘wipe wipe.’ Or a duck falls on the floor ‘uhoh’ and ‘up up’ to pick it up.

At the end of the activity you can model for the child that you say ‘bye bye’ and then wave to make the duck disappear, so teaching them that they can use their words to signal that they are finished.

Two-and-a-half-year-old – Train play

By the age of two and a half children have made the play transition from pretending on larger objects such as a doll at around 18 months to beginning to enjoy small world play. You’ll see that many of their needs to communicate are exactly the same as those of the 12-month-old baby, but the language and concepts they need to convey are much more sophisticated.

Two-year-olds can typically become very engaged in their small world play, making it tricky for adults to feel like they can join in other than labelling ‘oh, your train’s going over the bridge!’ The key way an adult can join the child’s play is to create the need to communicate, once again, by introducing problems for the child to solve.

Set the train track up so that it isn’t completely built but there isn’t a spare piece nearby. Allow the child to run their train around the track until they hit the missing piece. Help them to label the problem. If they don’t do it spontaneously you could help them to tell someone else ‘Tell Lucy, the track’s broken!’

You can then all think about the solution ‘we need more track!’ Once they’ve identified the solution, they then need to use their language to ask the right person for help by requesting ‘let’s ask Lucy for more track!’

Other train-play problems can include: animals on the line, the bridge is too low, and no people to get on the train. All these problems create a need for the child to use their language to share their thinking, all while they are having fun solving the problems!

Four-year-old play–generating multiple solutions

Pre-school play is characterised by a shift from more concrete, toy based play to increasingly imaginative play with complex worlds and often firm ideas from the child. Four-year-olds will have no qualms in telling you when you haven’t done something how they wanted you to within the play “No, you can’t be a pirate because we need someone to be a goodie!” So then, how can we as adults use their play to create different scenarios where they are stretched to use their language in new ways?

Imaginary role play – Frozen

Four-year-olds have shifted to setting up play with an increasing number of roles and rules. They have firm ideas about how things should be done so one of the key ways we can stretch their play is through encouraging them to generate multiple solutions for a problem and share their thinking around that. Key phrases you could offer to stimulate this thinking might be:

‘I wonder what other characters we could have?’

“Any ideas what else we could use as a castle? Let’s think of some other options!”

“Ella doesn’t want to be a princess, what shall we do? Any other ideas?”

By encouraging them to think of multiple solutions, they have to push their language and thinking beyond their natural first idea, creating a need for them to use many more complex language constructions such as “We could…” “Wonder if we might…” “Let’s….” “Perhaps….” The adult needs only to intervene for a moment to allow the children to problem solve, and can then step back and allow the play to progress.

Over to you

We hope this article will have encouraged you to consider the importance of the adult role in using play to create opportunities for children to enhance their language skills through creating real life ‘needs’ for communication. The practical examples are only to get you going, do share your ideas with us via social media @AuditoryVerbal on Twitter or @AuditoryVerbalUK on Facebook.

Rosie Quayle
Author: Rosie Quayle

Rosie Quayle
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Clinical Advisor – BSc (Hons) Rosie QuayleSLT, Cert MRCSLT, PGDip Auditory Verbal Therapy, LSLS Cert. AVT

Rosie qualified as a speech and language therapist in London at University College London. She moved to Oxfordshire in September 2007 to join the team at Auditory Verbal UK. She completed her diploma in auditory verbal therapy and qualified as an LSLS certified auditory verbal therapist in 2008 after training at AVUK.

Rosie has undertaken training in PROMPT (Prompts for Restructuring Ora; Muscular Phonetic Targets) technique for assessment and management of children with oro-motor speech production difficulties. She lectures and delivers training in auditory verbal therapy to parents and professionals across the UK and internationally and mentors professionals towards certification. Rose is a Churchill Fellow having undertaken a fellowship visit to AV centres in Australia and New Zealand in 2015.

Contributor to Auditory Verbal Therapy – for young children with hearing loss and their families and the practitioners who guide tem, Estabrooks, Maclver-Lux, Rhoades, Plural Publishing 2016.


Twitter: @RosieQuayle

LinkedIn: Rosie Quayle


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