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Conversation and interaction

Why it’s important

Young children learn about conversation within their first few weeks. New born babies focus on faces, give eye contact and vocalise to indicate their needs. Non-verbal interactions, such as eye contact, facial expression, imitation and turn-taking build important foundation skills for language development. Children use these non-verbal interaction skills throughout life when they interact with others.

The role of play in language development

It’s enjoyable for a child and encourages the skills necessary for language development. These include:

  • concentration
  • listening
  • developing concepts (shape, position, colour)
  • symbolic understanding (toys are symbols for objects in the same way that words are symbols)

When children play, they also develop their social communication skills.  As they get older, they practice these skills so they can work in a group with others.  To take part in a conversation with  children, they need to be able to:

  • take turns to talk
  • listen to others
  • be aware of what the listener knows and what they’re interested in
  • talk about the same topic as others and change topic appropriately
  • start conversations and join conversations appropriately
  • keep conversations going with a range of people in different situations, by commenting or asking questions.

Using language appropriately

As children get older, they need to use language to interact appropriately with others to question, negotiate, give opinions and discuss ideas and feelings. They need to know the correct language for each situation they experience, for example, when to use slang and when to use more formal language.

Strategies and tips to help build conversation and interaction skills

You can help your child to develop their skills by:

  • making eye contact when playing or talking
  • keeping background noise to a minimum
  • giving the child time to respond and not completing your child’s sentences
  • using open questions instead of closed questions to encourage more than a yes/no response

Tips for teachers

Teenagers and students will benefit from opportunities to chat on a 1-to-1 basis or in small groups. If they do not initiate topics, start conversations about their interests, TV programmes, film, what they did at the weekend and holiday plans.

Be honest. If you have not understood the student, ask them to explain again. This develops their self-awareness and gives them an opportunity to repair the conversation.

What to expect at each age milestone

Choose the age range below to find out how children develop their conversation and interaction skills. You’ll also find suggested activities that will help your child/a child you’re teaching/caring for to develop their skills.


What to expect

Babies engage in exploratory play. They explore toys and objects using their mouth and hands. Babies look at adults closely and copy movements, for example dropping objects. There’s limited interaction with other children and play is described as solitary.

Children of this age respond to voice and sound, by making eye contact and smiling when spoken to. They will ‘talk’ using babbling, squealing and cooing noises and try to communicate through actions and gestures.

Activities that help develop their skills

Give a baby different objects to explore, for example, spoons, shiny paper, empty pots, rattles and shakers.

Crumple up bits of paper or bang objects together to make interesting noises and encourage the baby to copy you.

Talk to the baby and make babbling sounds. Stop and give them time to make sounds back to you.

Play social games, for example, pat-a-cake and peek-a-boo.


What to expect

Children start to play with adults and notice other children. They begin to learn through cause and effect, for example, banging 2 objects together and finding what sound it makes. They also like repetitive actions such as putting objects in and out of boxes.

Children also start to take turns when talking. They’ll practice intonation, and imitate the natural up and down tones that occur in adult speech.

Activities that help develop their skills

You can:

  • experiment with cause and effect using musical instruments, for example home made drums and shakers
  • cover a toy with a scarf and encourage the child to pull the scarf to find the toy
  • introduce different sized containers for children to empty and fill with different objects
  • encourage turn-taking games to help them develop this skill in conversation

Watch the video below from Great Western Hospitals NHS on how to make the most of play time:


What to expect

Children use symbols in play such as a stick used as a sword. Your child may start to play alongside other children and copy their play. Children will still learn through trial and error and start to show some reasoning skills, for example, playing with inset puzzles.

Much of the child’s play will be ‘imaginative’ and include large toys (teddies, tea sets) or small toys (play people).

Children begin to engage in longer conversations. They also may try and rephrase what they’ve said if the listener does not understand.

Activities that help develop their skills

You can:

  • encourage matching of toy objects or pictures to the real object
  • let your child make pretend cups of tea for everyone in the family
  • use either dolls or teddies and pretend to dress, feed and wash them and have a tea party or picnic
  • encourage conversation by following the child’s lead and talking about things that are of interest to them
  • make children aware when you have not understood them, and give them another chance to explain what they mean.

Early turn taking

Teach the child how to take turns from an early age.

You can encourage the child to take turns by repeating their own actions or sounds, for example, making a funny noise at each other, rolling a ball or pushing a car down a ramp.

Encourage the child to anticipate another person’s actions in familiar routines.  Start with a small pause, continuing to make eye contact or using a gesture to show you have paused but will continue.

You can get your child to take turns:

  • moving trains
  • blowing or pop bubbles
  • rolling a ball or cars towards each other
  • rolling a ball or push a car down a ramp
  • posting a shape in a post box or place a piece of jigsaw puzzle
  • knocking down skittles
  • adding a brick to a tower
  • playing equipment.

Your child may have difficulty including you or taking turns when playing with toys. Their most interactive times may be during games you play together without toys. Some ‘people games’ you could try include:

  • peek a boo
  • tickling each other
  • making funny faces or funny noises, at each other or in a mirror
  • repeating an action, such as jumping or waving.

When you play the game say the same thing at the beginning, for example:

‘let’s play swinging’ or ‘let’s play tickles’, and use a sign or gesture for ‘finished’ at the end of the game.


What to expect

Children start to play co-operatively with others and take turns with other children. They may enjoy make believe play for instance playing ‘let’s pretend.’

Children of this age will start to talk about personal experiences, express ideas and feelings and frequently practice conversation skills by talking to themselves

Activities that help develop their skills

You can:

  • encourage ‘make-believe’ play and act out pretend situations with dolls or teddies, for example, bedtime, tea party, school, hospital.
  • build a pretend ‘house’ from boxes or a sheet. Encourage your child to act out daily scenes, for example, washing clothes, shopping
  • use old clothes for dress up and encourage the child to act out a different role, for example, nurse, parent, shopkeeper.

Talk to children about the things that interest them, for example favourite toys, outings, and stories. Give the child your full attention when talking.and demonstrate taking turns to talk, eye contact, making comments and asking questions. They may not be ready to apply these skills but will learn about them.


What to expect

Children develop their conversation skills, for example taking turns and talking about the same topic.

They will play co-operatively in groups with other children and may enjoy role, acting out common routines or pretending to be characters from books or TV programmes.

Children will also understand and use a range of emotion words. They will show some awareness of others emotions by attempting to comfort an upset friend.

Activities that help develop their skills

Choose a topic of conversation

Download our Conversation and interaction topic cards .

Take turns talking about that topic. Start with a couple of minutes and build it up.

Discuss likes and dislikes

Use food/animals/places as picture prompts. Take turns to choose a picture and say whether you like it or not.  If this is easy, then give a reason, for example, ‘I like rabbits because they’re fluffy’.

Play with topic cards (in a group setting)

Choose a topic card, for example, food, animals, sports, TV programmes.  Everyone must talk about that topic until the timer runs out. Start with a couple of minutes and build it up.



What to expect

Children will develop their conversational skills. They can start conversations with other people and join in with groups already talking.

They’ll join in co-operative games with friends and organise complex role play games. They may still find losing hard.

Children can now use language to ask, negotiate, give opinions and discuss ideas and feelings. For example:

‘Can Max come and play today? He wants to see my new car and his Mum says it’s ok.’

They know to give important details and will influence the listener  (‘his Mum says it’s ok’).

Children show an increased understanding of their friends’ feelings and wishes.  They’re aware of who their friends are and can give reasons why they’re friends. Friendships will now include falling out and making up again.

Activities that help develop their skills

Take turns miming and guessing actions, objects, and maybe feelings/emotions.

You can also play:

  • Chinese whispers and pass on a gesture or facial expression rather than whispering. This encourages eye contact and raises awareness of non-verbal communication
  • role play situations that the child may have experienced, or pretend situations such as acting out the first part of a story
  • Guess Who (available in toy shops) which targets taking turns, asking appropriate questions and being aware of what the listener knows.



What to expect

Children will:

  • take turns to talk, listen, and respond in two-way conversations and groups
  • use language they hear other people using and become aware of current peer language
  • be aware of what the listener knows already and make checks while telling a story, for example, ‘you know Jason, he’s the boy who lives next to Sally, he’s got a big dog, well he was at the park with…’
  • exaggerate to make stories more exciting, for example, ‘last week at Granny’s we had the biggest pizza in the world.’

At this age children learn to use different styles of speech with different people. For example, they use terms like ‘cool’, ‘hiya!’ or ‘yeah right’ with friends but not teachers.

Self-awareness and awareness of others

Children will show an interest in their peers (their likes and dislikes), and may use this information in social interactions to suggest playing a game they know the other child likes to gain their friendship. Children can identify how their friends feel using tone of voice and facial expressions.

They can put themselves in another person’s situation and work out what that person might be thinking.

Activities that help develop their skills

Conversations (in a school setting)

Some children benefit from something visual to pass around when talking in a small group to show whose turn it is to talk.  If you need a topic to talk about, you can use topic cards or question starter cards.

Give children a set number of question tokens to encourage them to:

  • ask each other questions to keep the conversation going
  • encourage an equal number of questions each.

You may need to explore questions before the activity.

Role reversal (in a school setting)

Take it in turns to be the teacher. The following games develop the child’s awareness of the listener’s knowledge by giving and listening to appropriate instructions. Games include:

  • Simon says
  • directing how to set up an obstacle course and which way to go round
  • directing a car or person around a map
  • explaining how to play a particular game.


What to expect

Children keep conversations going with a range of people in different situations, by making relevant comments or asking questions. They use language different reasons, for example, complementing or criticizing, clarifying or negotiating. This is important for building friendships.

Using formal language

Children can also use formal language when appropriate in some familiar situations, for example, showing a visitor around school.

Adding interest to storytelling

They can also add interest into their voices to make storytelling exciting and come to life. They may add detail or leave information out according to how much the listener already knows.

Understand the listener’s interests and make predictions

Children also understand more about the interests of the listener, for example, ‘guess who I saw yesterday?’ They may also infer other people’s thoughts and feelings.

At this age, children will also predict what people might do using the context, for example,

‘my friend’s running towards me holding a piece of paper, I think he’s about to give me a message, he’s smiling so it must be good news.’

They use this information to successfully make and maintain friendships with peers in their age group.

Activities that help develop their skills

Question starter cards

Create a bank of conversation starter cards featuring scenarios like ‘what would you do if you won the lottery?’ Take turns to pick one, then discuss as a group.  This activity is a good opportunity to:

  • encourage longer discussions
  • listen to other’s opinions
  • share your own ideas
  • agree or disagree appropriately.


What to expect

At this age, teenagers and students can

  • negotiate an agreement explaining other options and possible outcomes
  • manage and organise collaborative tasks with little adult supervision
  • realise when people don’t fully understand and try to help them
  • enjoy organising group games and explain the rules effectively
  • start to understand sarcasm with more exaggerated context, tone of voice and facial expression clues, for example, ‘that’s a brilliant idea, make as much noise as you can whilst your Dad is trying to sleep!’

Making and maintaining friendships

Changing friendship groups and social dynamics will test the ability to make and maintain friendships. Teenagers and students will read ‘hidden social rules’ and use these to interact appropriately with different groups of people at home, with friends and talking to a teacher.

Activities that help develop their skills

Explaining rules

Ask teenagers/students to invent a new board/card/video game. Can they explain the rules to you?

Plan a day out

Involve your teenager in organising a family day out/meal/party and give them opportunities to share their ideas. Encourage them to look at others’ viewpoints, and share reasons behind their ideas and planning arrangements, for example transport and timings.


Split a group into 2 teams and ask them to formulate an argument for or against an idea, even if it’s not a view point they agree with. This might be something like ‘all video games are bad for you’ or ‘students should not have to wear school uniforms.’

Strategies to help this age range

Modify your questions

While open questions encourage fuller answers, they need more organisation of language. Use forced alternatives to enable students with expressive language difficulties to take part, for example, ‘does an acid turn universal indicator red or blue?’

Scaffold questions

This will help extract more information, for example:

  • ‘what can be done to prevent coastal erosion?’
  • ‘what happens when coasts are eroded?’
  • ‘how does that happen?’
  • ‘what could be done to prevent that?’




What to expect

Teenagers can:

  • stay on one topic of conversation for long periods and move sensibly from one topic to another
  • switch easily between informal and formal styles of talking depending on the audience
  • understand sarcasm and irony.

Making and maintaining friendships

Teenagers at this age will share the same experiences as those in the 11 to 14 age range (see above).

Activities that help develop their skills

Ask teenagers to practice formal or informal language in role play activities. Have a selection of situations and topics of conversation, for example:

  • in the lunch queue
  • at the park
  • visiting grandparents
  • asking how someone is
  • discussing what you watched on television
  • interview or work experience scenarios.