Play and Talk theory

During games and fun activities children are naturally more motivated and will learn more language. These are ideal times to have a chat with children, have a conversation, ask questions, and make comments.

Play is multidimensional in the way it contributes to oral language. Oral language is one mode of meaning making alongside visual, auditory, gestural, and spatial forms of communication. Spoken language is important in its own right and especially in school as it is central to teaching and learning.

Spoken language in all its many forms is as highly structured and organised as written language. Oral and written language are both important, but each provides different ways of knowing. Oral language functions allow students to think and access knowledge in different ways. There are many ways spoken language is used to express meaning, for example to problem solve, hypothesise, imagine, and inform. Oral language is closely related to thinking and understanding, it is multidimensional in the way it contributes to early reading.

Play and Talk activities are designed to develop the oral language and communication skills of young children (birth to first year of school).

The 1,2,3 of Play and Talk provide examples of language that can be modelled to children, ways to encourage communication as well as the types of questions that can be used to develop a wide variety of expressive language and thinking skills. The activity cards include two sections of language adults can use with children specific to the activity and illustrative of these important language support strategies.

1. Add Language to Play – modelling; expansion; adding words and actions; rephrasing

2. Get the Child Talking – this includes disruption strategies

3. Ask Open Ended Questions – asking a variety of levelled open ended questions.

1. Add language to Play

An adult’s interaction with young children is one of the most important ways that children’s language development can be supported[footnoteRef:0]. The Adding Language to Play section of the Play and Talk activities provides examples of the vocabulary, phrases and sentences that may be used or encouraged from young children while playing. Language stimulation techniques are described with the intention of supporting adults in explicitly and knowingly providing children with language development opportunities. [0: You Make the Difference (2004) from Hanen Centre]


Adding words onto what a child says not only acknowledges their communication attempt but provides a model of language at their next stage of development. Adding experiences and words helps a child:

  • to learn about the world
  • hear the words they need to say

Actions with words (gestures or signs)

Actions help to clarify the message, gets the child’s interest, and gives a support for talking if they don’t have the word/s

ADD a word or phrase or concept

These additions tell the child you are interested, that you have listened to them, and teaches them new language. Try to make the new word or important word stand out by using your voice or gesture.

ADD a new idea

The child’s original ideas are the same, but they hear an alternative way of expressing it, within a natural interaction or learning situation.

  • talk about the name, actions of objects, use feeling words, explain and describe and REPEAT
  • rephrase to show the child an alternative way of saying the same thing. The adult’s rephrase occurs just after the child’s, it retains the same meaning and then changes one or more elements of the child’s sentence. For example:
    • “He is running” – rephrased as “the boy is running” or
    • “Today is Tuesday” – rephrased as “it is Tuesday today”

Adding Language to Play

This might involve the adult providing a running description of what they are doing, thinking, or planning in an activity. It models language and provides a verbal demonstration of problem solving e.g., “Hmmm…I wonder how I can make that cup…”

Also describing the actions and play of a quiet and reserved child may help them become more confident to use language. However, it is important that this strategy is not overused as it could result in adult dominated talk.

2. Getting the Child Talking

An important part of creating a language-rich environment is providing stimulating activities and arranging opportunities for talking. Disruption can be a way of ‘provoking’ children to comment, request and question what the adult has or hasn’t done. Make it a fun interaction and praise the child for helping you correct your error. Whilst routines are important for children to learn, they can be carefully manipulated to encourage communication. It is useful for adults to step back every now and then from providing all the equipment or needs of the child without expecting them to request or use words.

The following examples are ways you might disrupt familiar routines to create opportunities and reasons for children to communicate.

Disruption is a fun way to encourage communication and show the ‘power’ of using your words. However, don’t overuse the strategy with children. Also, some children will benefit from this approach more than others. The Play and Talk activity cards include suggestions for ways to disrupt the activities to get the children thinking, questioning, and talking.

3. Open-Ended Questioning

An important part of engaging children in dialogue about their play and activities is through asking questions. Adults often ask children yes/no and choice type questions:

  • do you want juice?
  • do you want juice or milk?

However, to have a conversation questions need to be open ended:

  • when sharing books (“what’s that called?”),
  • completing routines at home (where is the …?)
  • planning activities (“what do you want to do …?).

It is important for adults to monitor their questioning style and ensure a balance is occurring. Choice questions offer a useful bridge or scaffold between yes/no and open-ended questions.

There are a variety of open-ended questions, some easier than others. The Sound Beginnings Question Framework[footnoteRef:1] offers a framework of effective questioning that facilitates the child’s language development from one dependent on the ‘here and now’ to an ability to understand decontextualised or ‘there and then’ language. This is known to be important for coping with the language of learning and school. Children need to hear and engage with a variety of questions and be provided with models of how to answer the questions. [1: Sound Beginnings Question Framework, 2021]

The Sound Beginnings Question Framework provides a developmental sequence. The question types challenge different levels of thinking and talking during activities. The Play and Talk activity cards have examples of these, specific to each activity.