Toddlers With Poor Language Skills Fall Behind in Play

Two-year-olds with poor language skills fare worse than their peers at play and, subsequently, fall behind socially. This was the finding of a new study from the Stavanger Project at the Norwegian Reading Centre, University of Stavanger.

While 70% of 2-year-olds with normal language development function well when playing with other children, only 11% of 2-year-olds with poor language skills manage to play with others. Children with poor language skills also have problems keeping up when playing. This causes other children to stop including them, meaning children with poor language skills are excluded from the all-important playtime. This was the finding of a new study that was presented during the Stavanger Project’s annual research gathering on Wednesday 4 November in Stavanger.

“Two-year-olds with limited language skills miss out on important social experience, which is also important for language development”, says PhD student Elisabeth Brekke Stangeland. She studied the relationship between children’s language, play and social skills as part of the Stavanger Project at the Reading Centre, University of Stavanger (UiS).

“Our research shows that children with language difficulties struggle socially and that this persists into secondary school. Previous studies that have been done in other countries have focussed on older children. We wanted to look at these relationships in Norwegian children in kindergarten”, says Stangeland. Most Norwegian children attend a public or private barnehage—or kindergarten—from the age of 1.

She looked at the relationship between language and social skills in over 1000 children aged 2 years and 9 months. There is a major difference between the 10% of the weakest children and the rest of the children in that particular age group.

“Play requires a good grasp of language. Even children under the age of three years use language when playing and it is essential that children understand each other in the process. In role play, for example, children who do not understand everything that is being said are quickly reduced to playing minor roles. They may end up playing the dog or the baby. Other research shows that these children quickly seek the company of adults instead of the other children and that they function badly in free play. Thus they miss out on social training, social codes for playing in the kindergarten and important linguistic stimulation”, says Stangeland.

Important adults

Other studies show that five-year-olds with language difficulties are more often ignored by their peers, that their peers are less responsive to what they say, that they have difficulties in entering and negotiating during play, and that they are less popular as playmates.

Photo of a toddler touching a wall.

She looked at the relationship between language and social skills in over 1000 children aged 2 years and 9 months. There is a major difference between the 10% of the weakest children and the rest of the children in that particular age group. Image is for illustrative purposes only.

Stangeland and her colleagues in the Stavanger Project hope that the findings from this study will help to raise awareness among adults working with small children.

“Children of this age are definitely not aware of helping others to join in and play. Adults have an important role here. They can keep an eye on events and help the child to get involved and play. It is important that these children receive help at an early stage to get involved and play and understand linguistic and social codes in order to prevent these social difficulties becoming worse and persisting when the child starts school. Poor social skills do not suddenly occur at school age”, she points out.

Background: About the Stavanger Project

The Stavanger Project – The Learning Child is a study that deals with the development of over 1000 Norwegian children. The Stavanger Project looks at skills and development within and across the areas of language, numeracy, social ability and motor function of children in kindergarten from the age of 2½ years.

“We have gained new, invaluable knowledge about Norwegian children’s skills and developmental levels from this study. Among other things, we know that Norwegian children have strong motor skills compared to many children in other countries, but that they have weaker numeracy skills. We see also that there are big differences between genders within the development of two-year-old boys and girls, that boys participate less frequently in language activities than girls and that children with poor motor skills often have poor numeracy skills. This is crucial knowledge for developing Norwegian kindergarten”, says Associate Professor and Project Manager for the Stavanger Project, Elin Reikerås at the Reading Centre, UiS.

Important relationships

The children who were in the Stavanger Project are now attending school. The pupils’ reading, writing and arithmetic skills are being charted by their teachers in the second and fifth year at school. As the researchers gain knowledge about the pupils’ current level of ability in reading, writing and arithmetic, they will look at the relationships between the children’s development in kindergarten and their acquisition of basic skills in school.

The project is a co-operation between UiS and the City of Stavanger, and Reikerås expects that the study will have positive consequences for Norwegian kindergartens.

“A new framework plan for kindergarten is due in 2017. We expect that the knowledge and results of the Stavanger Project will have significance for the framework plan, so that Norwegian kindergartens can become even better than they currently are”, she says.

About this neurodevelopment and language research

Source: University of Stavanger
Image Credit: The image is in the public domain
Original Research: The findings were presented at the Stavanger Project’s annual research gathering on Wednesday 4 November in Stavanger.

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