Symbolic play provides a fertile context for language development

Creaghe, N., Quinn, S., & Kidd, E. (2021). Symbolic play provides a fertile context for language development. Infancy, 26(6), 980-1010. doi:10.1111/infa.12422.
In this study we test the hypothesis that symbolic play represents a fertile context for language acquisition because its inherent ambiguity elicits communicative behaviours that positively influence development. Infant-caregiver dyads (N = 54) participated in two 20-minute play sessions six months apart (Time 1 = 18 months, Time 2 = 24 months). During each session the dyads played with two sets of toys that elicited either symbolic or functional play. The sessions were transcribed and coded for several features of dyadic interaction and speech; infants’ linguistic proficiency was measured via parental report. The two play contexts resulted in different communicative and linguistic behaviour. Notably, the symbolic play condition resulted in significantly greater conversational turn-taking than functional play, and also resulted in the greater use of questions and mimetics in infant-directed speech (IDS). In contrast, caregivers used more imperative clauses in functional play. Regression analyses showed that unique properties of symbolic play (i.e., turn-taking, yes-no questions, mimetics) positively predicted children’s language proficiency, whereas unique features of functional play (i.e., imperatives in IDS) negatively predicted proficiency. The results provide evidence in support of the hypothesis that symbolic play is a fertile context for language development, driven by the need to negotiate meaning.
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