You've probably heard that play is critical for language development. But why is that? Is it simply that play gives children the opportunity to speak and to interact with others? Partly, but it goes deeper than that.
Words are symbols. They stand in for the real thing. So when I say 'car', I'm using the word as a label. I'm not presenting you with the actual object. This is abstract thought, and it's key to language development.
Toddlers like to eat pretend food using a real spoon, or to feed their toys. The props they use for their play have to be real or realistic. But as children get older, they start to use objects that bear little resemblance to the thing they're trying to represent. A block becomes a mobile phone or the king's treasure. It is now a symbol.
This explains one of the criticisms of the Montessori approach - real tasks are favoured over pretend ones. The home corner is never turned into the Three Bears' house or a hotel. So opportunities for symbolic play are limited.
By the time children reach preschool, they are happy to give toys voices of their own and create worlds for them. By four or five, they'll start to role-play, to take on imaginary personas. They, themselves, have become the symbol.
Make room for symbolic play from the very start. There will be days when you're too busy (or in my case, too grumpy!) to take part in yet another teddy bears' picnic, but it's worth taking the time whenever you can. Symbolic play is one of the most important skills your child can develop.
Here's the rest of the series:
Encourage open-ended play for creativity and focus
Understanding schema play in toddlers
Independent play and why it matters
Insider Guide: Small World Play and Language
Tell Almost Any Story with Just a Handful of Figures
A simple guide to choosing the right toy