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It Pays to Play

Fred Volkmar
By Fred Volkmar

Fred Volkmar is Irving B. Harris Professor in the Child Study Center and Professor of Pediatrics, of Psychiatry and of Psychology at Yales University. He is also Chief of Child Psychiatry at Yale-New Haven Children's Hospital, and Chair of the Yale Child Study Center. He is a member of the advisory council of Too Small to Fail.

There’s something key about early childhood development that we often overlook:  the importance of playing and talking.  This applies to families of every background, in my experience. 

It’s essential for parents and caregivers to interact with a baby right from the start – you have to talk and play a lot in those early years.  And if you fail to, you’re losing out on a real opportunity – not only to bond, but also to help the child grow and develop.

Beginning at birth, babies come into the world ready to play the social game.  They want to learn their parent’s feelings, what they’re thinking, and the fastest way to do that is to develop a vocabulary and understand words.  This moment sets the stage for language development later, and it’s important to help parents talk more, and tell stories to babies.  A child who’s left on her own a lot is not going to have deep experiences and typically will be behind by the time she gets to kindergarten.  In contrast, kids who have exposure to a language-rich environment are far ahead.

It teaches us a lot when a child isn’t willing to play, or doesn’t play, as we see in cases of autism.  And you can easily wind up with problems with language delays, and learning, and a host of other things that sort of fall out from not engaging with a child in a way that is social and playful, beginning on day one.

We now know that before birth, babies are already listening to their mothers.  And there is so much happening in the first year.  By the time a child is nine months old, even before she says her first word, she has already been playing the social game, babbling back and forth.  The length of her babble is about the length of a parent’s conversation with her.  She’s doing the same thing as her parent.  And by that same point, she is also learning to segment language.  She can hear individual words.  She is using rhythm and intonation – what we call “prosody” – the sort of musical aspect of speech, in which the voice goes up and down. 

Every baby is born with the capacity to learn any language – including languages with these unusual sort of “click” sounds that today are only spoken in parts of Africa.  If you talk to a child, and play with her, she’ll begin babbling in English – making sounds like “ba ba,” and eventually these “click” sounds she is born with, that are part of her babbling, will drop out of her language altogether.  But if you listen to the language of a high-functioning child with autism at this same stage of development, you’ll notice she has a lot of trouble with prosody.  And she’ll repeat whole phrases, instead of breaking language apart.  And those click sounds won’t drop out of her language the same way.

As the average child gets older and more mobile, her social games become more complex – more social and even more language-rich.  But the important thing – something a project called First Words recognizes – is that even before a baby’s first words, she is playing the game and needs you to reciprocate.

To understand the importance of play in language development, it’s helpful to understand what we know about a child’s capacity to play.  The famous Swiss psychologist Piaget taught us a lot about the stages of play.  He called the first 18 months the “sensory motor” period, where sensation is what dominates a child’s experience.  From six to nine months, for example, a child is interested in banging things together.  In the first year of life, if a child sees something fall off a wall, or something unusual happen, her first reaction is to look to the parent, or point at the object and find out how the parent responds.  This is called “joint attention.”

And then as a child gets older, between ages 1 and 3, play becomes more functional.  Eventually, a child will take a cup and saucer and start to pretend.  And still later, symbolic play kicks in, where the object a child plays with begins to represent something else entirely.  The child’s play is no longer constrained by the object’s actual function.

By ages 3 to 5, kids are sharing things, using imagination, playing dress up.  By kindergarten, a child is engaging in all kinds of symbolic cooperative play – an advance from the earlier years, where it’s mostly parallel play, with toddlers tinkering alongside each other.  So, in the space of a few years, a child moves from manipulating objects to using objects for their actual functions to pretending the objects are something entirely different.

Given this trajectory of play, in the first five years, it’s important for parents and caregivers to really think about what a child is experiencing and how to make it fun, and play the social game.  A child is going to learn most when she is comfortable.  If a caregiver finds her favorite books, thinks about what she’s experiencing, and feels connected to the baby by reading and spending time together, that’s going to enhance the child’s vocabulary. 

For parents who don’t own a lot of books, or even have a lot of experience reading themselves, the public library can be an amazing resource.  A librarian can help find books perfectly suited for a particular child – based on what that child is interested in, whether it’s airplanes, or dolls, or bears.  And there are reading groups there, too.  The library opens up this immense world of the written word, and it enhances skills even beyond reading – from sitting in a seat, to paying attention, and following rules.  So it’s a very interesting package of skills a parent can help a child develop.

When you tell stories, talk to a baby, and relate to her as a person, you are literally building connections in her brain – stimulating regions of the brain that will grow and develop.  It provides fertilizer for learning, and subsequent learning.  There’s a cyclical effect:  when you stimulate those areas of the brain, they become even more prone to be stimulated later on.  So for caregivers of infants and toddlers, it’s really important to remember how much it pays to play