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How to Play with Purpose- A Guide for Parents and Caregivers

Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning. Play really is the work of childhood. -Fred Rogers

When you arrive at The Speech Spot you will quickly see that we take our play very seriously! Some of our therapy rooms look more like a child’s playroom, and that is something we are proud of, because we know that when our clients play they are forming important neural connections that are the foundation for all other developmental skills- language, speech, social, and physical. According to the research, play is meaningful to children. When we teach concepts, words, and sounds, those new skills become relevant to the child’s life. Meaningful experiences promote retention, generalization, and learning.

Since we spend many hours a week playing, we wanted to share some of our tips and tricks to make your child’s play at home meaningful and language enriched. One goal we have when working with young children is to coach and mentor parents and caregivers to feel confident when playing at home. Take note, this is not about having the most toys, newest toys, or even any toys at all sometimes!

Follow your child’s lead- allow your child to select activities that interest them. Allow them to be “in charge” of the play. Even if that means they are playing cars and legos for the one billionth time. Allowing them to select the activities creates a more enjoyable, memorable, and relevant experience. This also allows them to master skills they may be interested in. For example, they may be starting to understand the concept of first-then, so they are playing with the toy kitchen every chance they can. They act out the routine of first washing the veggies then cutting them or first I put the car on top of the ramp, then I let it go and it falls. Let them play on repeat!

Use objects in a variety of ways- the development of symbolic play is an important skill that is correlated to language skill development. For example, use a banana as a phone, use the baby bottle as a fire hose to put the fire out. Use everyday items and things you already own. Before putting away the rattle or stacking rings that they seem to have outgrown, think of a new way to play with them and show them! Can you use the rattle as a salt shaker in the kitchen? Can you take the stacking rings and pretend they are glasses? Another example may be to expand on the play routine/sequence that has become familiar. For example, if they love playing with baby dolls, expand from feeding the baby a bottle to burping them, changing the diaper, and putting them to sleep. Using familiar routines such as bedtime will give them exposure to the vocabulary of familiar routines they do with you.

Play can be anywhere, with anything- Imagine sitting at a restaurant and you forgot your diaper bag with all the “reinforcements”. All you have is a napkin, silverware, salt/pepper shaker, and sugar packets in a small container. Well, when you use everyday things, I see a boat (small container) that can sail across the sea (sugar packets laid out), dodging sea creatures along the way (fork, spoon, salt,pepper) just before a storm cloud comes along and covers the boat in snow (white napkin)! Kids love it when we show them how to use regular items in new and different ways. This kind of imaginative play has deep roots in language development. Children with developed imaginative play also tend to have stronger expressive language skills.

Play is FUN- let them make a mess, use their imagination, be the leader, and laugh! Give them a physical space that is safe to explore independently with you nearby listening in on the fun. Allowing them to be alone let’s them explore their surroundings and practice the play.

At this point you may also be wondering why a speech therapist is interested in how a child plays? Well, play skills often indicate language skills. Children with underdeveloped play skills tend to have lower expressive language skills. Play is the natural place to observe how children are developing language skills such as sequencing, basic concepts, turn taking (social skills), vocabulary acquisition, following directions, grammar, pronouns, answering questions, asking questions, speech sounds, pre-literacy skills, executive functioning skills (self control, shift attention from one task to another), and processing speed. By observing a child play, we can get insight into many other areas of language development- receptive, expressive, and social language. Observing play gives us insight into the developing mind of a child.

The benefits of play can’t be underestimated. Research has shown over and over again why we need to let our kids play and model how to play. With these tips and tricks, we hope you feel a more confident playing with your child. For more information about where your child should be developmentally in his/her play skills, please don’t hesitate to call or email us with your questions- or 314-312-3268. Your call and email will be answered by a speech language pathologist!


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