Spatial Language During Play

Adapted from Ferrara, Hirsh-Pasek, Newcombe, Golinkoff, & Lam, 2011

One of the best ways that adults can guide children’s play is by talking with them during the activity. How adults talk and use language during play can also boost math skills. Researchers wanted to know if the amount and type of language we use varies depending on the type of play. They asked three groups of 3 and 4-year-olds and adults to play with the same toys, but in different ways.

In the first group, children and adults were free to play with blocks and figures how they liked. In the second group, the pairs engaged in guided play. They had a set of instructions to follow, a bit like assembling furniture. In the third group, the pairs played with preassembled block structures and figures. They received no particular guidance.

The researchers compared the spatial language children and adults used across the groups. Children used slightly more spatial language (words like over and under) in the guided play session compared to the other groups. Adults in the guided play session also used more spatial language than the other groups. When adults help children carry out common goals it allows for richer conversation about spatial concepts.

  • Free play
    is spontaneous, unstructured play that is child-directed
    Guided play
    is like free play, in that it's focused on what the child is interested in. But unlike free play, an adult facilitates a playful learning experience