Home Private Practice Welcome to Kid Confidential: Let’s Play!

Welcome to Kid Confidential: Let’s Play!

by Maria Del Duca
written by
family playing on beach at sunset

Welcome to the first installment of Kid Confidential, a monthly column where Maria Del Duca, M.S. CCC-SLP will be discussing all topics related to speech, language and child development. 

First off, let me say that I am not a researcher, I’m an observer.  I’m just a clinician like you using Evidence Based Practice (EBP) and trial and error to make my way in the world of language development.  I do not claim to be an expert, but I have had a hodge-podge of experiences and have worked with amazing clinicians and educators who have taught me along the way.

Through my years of experience and my constant need for information I have exhausted the minds of those with whom I have worked.  I have badgered them with a barrage of questions about why and how they were doing what they were doing.  Most of the time, I have found teachers and therapists willing to share their knowledge with me.  So today, I’m paying it forward.  Let’s talk play skills!

I don’t know about you, but upon completing graduate school I knew a whole lot about normal language acquisition, how to read, understand and review a research article, and how to administer and interpret numerous standardized tests, but I knew nothing about play skills.  Of course looking back at it now, this seems a bit ridiculous when we think of the number of children on our caseloads that are younger than five years of age.  But at the time, I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

Research shows us that play really is the work of a child.  We understand that play skills affect cognition, pragmatics and language development.  According to Pretend Play: The Magical Benefits of Role Play, by One Step Ahead:

Pretend play facilitates growth in more than just the areas mentioned above.  Encouraging a child to participate in pretend play positively affects:

  • Imaginative thinking and exploration
  • Abstract thinking
  • Problem Solving
  • Life skills
  • Leadership skills
  • Communication development
  • Social Skills development
  • Use of “Theory of Mind” (understanding/taking another’s perspective)
  • Understanding of safety
  • Self-confidence and a high self-esteem

We know we should assess play skills in young children.  But do we know what developmental play skills look like when we see them?  According to the Developmentally Appropriate Curriculum: Best Practices in Early Childhood Education, otherwise known as “the EC bible” in the world of early childhood educators, there are three distinct types and five social stages of play children typically exhibit between birth and age five (Kostelnik, Soderman, and Phipps Whiren).  Do you know what they are?  Read all about them in the tables below.

Slide1 Slide2You can download your copy of the above tables here.

I would be remiss if I did not share a word of caution when assessing play skills.  There are many cultures that do not value the child-centered, independent play of our western culture.  In order to differentially diagnose deficit versus difference we must keep in mind any cultural differences of the child’s family.  For more information on this topic, read Multicultural Considerations in Assessment of Play by Tatyana Elleseff MA CCC-SLP.

So now we know what typical play skills look like.  How do you assess play skills?  What are your favorite materials to use?  What topics do you want to see discussed here on Kid Confidential?

Don’t be afraid to share your ideas by commenting below.  And remember…“Knowledge is power” (Sir Francis Bacon)!


Kostelnik, Marjorie, Anne Soderman, and Alice Phipps Whiren. Developmentally Appropriate Curriculum: Best Practices in Early Childhood Education. 5. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson, 2011. Print


Maria Del Duca, M.S. CCC-SLP, is a pediatric speech-language pathologist in southern, Arizona.  She owns a private practice, Communication Station: Speech Therapy, PLLC, and has a speech and language blog under the same name.  Maria received her master’s degree from Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania.  She has been practicing as an ASHA certified member since 2003 and is an affiliate of Special Interest Group 16, School-Based Issues.  She has experience in various settings such as private practice, hospital and school environments and has practiced speech pathology in NJ, MD, KS and now AZ.  Maria has a passion for early childhood, autism spectrum disorders, rare syndromes, and childhood Apraxia of speech.  For more information, visit her blog or find her on Facebook


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Tatyana February 14, 2013 - 12:16 pm

Great article Maria! I typically use the Westby Play Scale when assessing Anglo-European Children. But I have to say that assessing play skills is definitely becoming more challenging since not only different cultures place different emphasis on play but also children from these cultures evidence different patterns of play. I really like this chapter “Culture and Development in Children’s Play” (found here http://ruby.fgcu.edu/courses/ehyun/10041/culture_and_development_in.htm) from Hyun”s book “Making sense of developmentally and culturally appropriate practice (DCAP) in early childhood education”, which describes the dynamics of cultural influence and child development on children’s play. However, I find myself constantly searching for more information regarding how to conduct culturally appropriate play assessments of children from non-mainstream cultures. So any further posts on this topic would be greatly appreciated.

Maria Del Duca February 14, 2013 - 4:20 pm

Tatyana thanks for sharing that information with us all. That’s a really good resource. You make an important point as more and more children from various cultures are being referred earlier and earlier for services we find ourselves with more questions than answers after an assessment is complete. There are a few family interest survey questionnaires in “Developmentally Appropriate Curriculum: Best Practices in Early Childhood Education” (Kostelnik, et. al.) that are really helpful in determining insights into a family’s cultural beliefs regarding various child rearing issues such as toileting, sleeping schedules, child responsibility as well as traditions, and cultural background, that can be very helpful when performing assessment in any area really. But I too find myself wanting that testing measure that is standardized for various cultures so I can say without a doubt I have definitive proof of a disorder. I wonder if any early childhood SLPs or early childhood educators out there that might be reading this could shed some light on how they perform play assessments keeping in mind cultural differences. What tests, behavioral checklists, parent interview questions, etc. do you use?

Maria Del Duca February 14, 2013 - 4:35 pm

I forgot to add this above but this is a nice article for those fairly new to play assessment on the types of assessments out there and why we struggle with using standardized tests for play assessment. The article, titled Best Practices in Play Assessment and Intervention (Vance, Ryalls) can be found at: http://www.nasponline.org/publications/booksproducts/BP5Samples/549_BPV71_33.pdf. But wouldn’t it be nice if we had that clear cut, black and white answer? That’s must be the type A personality in me I suppose. 🙂

Heidi Ring February 16, 2013 - 1:32 pm

What a great article Maria!! One thing I have definitely learned the past couple of years with ELL in my world now is the difference in the ability of play. The cultural article will give me new insight once again. You are the best at finding new information. I have been emphasizing play with my staff all year with articles and you just proved once again how important it is. It can’t be done, however, without great facilitators. Do you agree? I can’t wait to read more from you. Thanks for including me in your tagging.

Maria Del Duca February 19, 2013 - 5:09 pm

Thank you for bringing up ELL! How underestimated those services are in our schools, particularly at such a young age! I completely agree with you our job as educators, therapists, parents, etc. is to help our children learn about this world through play. We should see ourselves as “facilitators of fun” because research study after research study shows that children (birth-5 years of age) learn best through play. So not only giving our students/clients opportunities for play is important but successfully facilitating social interactions during play is ESSENTIAL! And when this is done successfully, we find that less “instruction” is required. I have learned the most about the relationship between play, cognition, and language development by watching you ECSE teachers at work! SLPs can all learn a lot from you so I am grateful for both comments from teachers!

Katie February 16, 2013 - 11:57 pm

As an ECSE teacher I think what I struggled with most when dealing with multicultural families was the different levels of expectations being placed on the children. I agree with there needing to be a standardized test with cultural diversity components. Oh how much easier that would make things! When testing children’s social and self-help skills I often found myself asking the parents a list of questions only for them to reply no or that they had never asked or noticed because it was not expected of children to do those things. When I was first teaching I probably offended some families by telling them they need to push their children to be more self sufficient and interact more with other children. Knowing more now about different cultures and learning from some of those great families has allowed me to be more sensitive and really take the time to understand them. With that being said the advice I have to offer is to take the time to listen to the parents, know what is typical for children at that age, research the culture to compare what is expected and use your best professional judgement!

Maria Del Duca February 19, 2013 - 4:43 pm

Thank you for this comment. It really helps us SLPs to see how early childhood educators assess these areas in a functional way. I completely agree with you that parent interviews are so very important as we do not know if the child has even had an opportunity to use various toys or independently put on his own coat, or feed himself, etc. until we ask. To us, it seems obvious that we would want our children to be as independent as possible and we forget that not all cultures value independence at such a young age. I guess the key really is to work together as a team, educators and therapists alike, to tease out difference vs. disorder as best we can. Thanks for your advice and sharing your professional journey with us. I know it will help all who read it!

SUSAN EUSTACE March 10, 2013 - 11:11 am

As an Occupational Therapist, I would be remiss if i did not mention the role of the OT when addressing play skill development. The primary “occupation” of childhood is play; and OTs absolutely do learn about the types and stages of play in our schooling, and as clinicians we are equipped to address play skill development in children. I have enough years of experience to know that the roles of various disciplines are not clear cut; OT & PT often overlap, as do OT/SLP. But I do hope that when the play skills (and for that matter, the self-care skills as well!) of a particular child are being evaluated and/or addressed, the OT member of the clinical team is also consulted.

That being said, I also wish there was an objective tool available to measure play skills in children. Sometimes though, when you are evaluating something as qualitative as play, the trained eye of a skilled professional is the best evaluation tool.

Maria Del Duca March 11, 2013 - 1:01 pm

Wow! To see that a post on the American-Speech-Language and Hearing Association’s blog is reaching professionals in other disciplines is wonderful and exciting to say the least! Thank you Susan for your comment!

I completely agree with you that a team approach is invaluable for any client. Participating in similar activities while assessing and treating from our various professional lens (from our speech, OT and PT lens) will yield fantastic insights when holistically treating a client. With that said I just caution ALL professionals to remain within their scope of practice when assessing and treating individuals. As SLPs, OTs and PTs, although areas of development may overlap (particularly in the very early stages of development) we approach each skill from our professional point of view and with our goals in mind so it is essential that we work as a team to effectively treat our clients.

Great points, Susan. Thank you again for your comment!

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