As an occupational therapist that works with pediatric clients, daycare supply teacher and volunteer with Camp Oochigeas (where the power of camp and “being a kid” is celebrated through inclusive programming for children experiencing childhood cancer), I believe strongly in the power of play. As a new occupational therapist, parents of my clients were apologetic when their children wouldn’t “sit properly” at a desk, or were more interested in playing and sharing their toys instead of sitting and writing or focusing on the task at hand. I am constantly thinking up different ways of disguising assessments and interventions into fun games, challenges or make believe play to increase engagement and buy in from my clients, but I also try to reassure parents that their kids playing, whether alone or with others, can be seen as essential for development.
Play is a physical or mental activity that happens for pure purpose of entertainment, fun, and amusement. Whether a child is playing on their own or with friends, in unstructured play such as engaging in make believe or playing with blocks, or structured play like a group game, this engagement in activity profound to a child’s development. Play allows learning happen naturally as a child imagines, interacts and explores with their physical and social surroundings. Children are able to use their creativity while developing fine and gross motor skills, imagination, emotional strength and cognitive growth. A simple example of natural learning can be seen with toddlers and their expansion of language during play. In my experience working in daycare and babysitting toddler age children, as a child interacts with a certain toy, the adult can provide them with the proper name of the toy (ex: “wow that’s a fluffy bunny!”), and as the child begins to speak more, they will have the experience with vocabulary to draw on. Another example of natural learning through play might be learning how to follow rules, and build proper social skills. Through playing alongside other people, whether it is other children or family members, children can learn the importance of turn taking, manners and following rules; for example, if a child is playing with blocks and needs a block for their tower but another child has it, guidance from the adult can get them to learn to ask politely to use the toy, to wait their turn until the other child is done, and to respect my favourite rule “we only knock down towers that we build ourselves!” (can you tell I work with small children! As children grow up, their play changes with them – they become more engaged in social play with friends, and as they grow into teenagers their “play” becomes “hanging out”. Regardless of what the play looks like, there is exploration based learning, emotional expression, and social growth.
From the research summary “The Power of Play” (linked at the end of the page), they identify a couple components of play to keep in mind, which I will quote here:
- Play is Pleasurable – Children must enjoy the activity or it is not play
- Play is Intrinsically Motivated – Children engage in play simply for the satisfaction the behaviour itself brings. It has no extrinsically motivated function or goal.
- Play is process oriented – When children play, the means are more important than the ends (aka they aren’t playing to create something, they are enjoying the process… this is why block towers are often destroyed immediately after creating them!)
- Play is freely chosen – it is spontaneous and voluntary. If a child is pressured, she will likely not think of the activity as play
- Play is actively engaged – Players must be physically and/or mentally involved in the activity
- Play is non literal – it involved make believe!
Play doesn’t have to encompass all of these points, but play must be enjoyed and freely chosen. If a child is being forced to sit still and colour a picture to put on the wall, even though they LOVE colouring this might not be play for them as they are not interested at that time in creating something to be displayed. I always like to think about it in relation to cooking – if you are cooking because you HAVE to cook to feed yourself or your family, it might be seen as a task or chore. But if you are baking cookies because you love baking, you are more engaged and may have fun doing it!
Free vs Guided Play
Research has looked at the difference in free play vs guided play and what roles these might have in a child’s development. Guided play is adult facilitated play, based on how much the environment is set up to determine what play happens, and how involved the adults are. On a simple level, adults can guide play through providing specific toys to promote specific learning or developmental goals. In more direct forms of guided play, adults may play with the child, asking questions, commenting on what the child is discovering, or encouraging deeper exploration (ex: providing names for different animals to deepen vocabulary, or asking a child about the feelings that their doll or make believe character is having). Free play on the other hand, is directed by the child and provides them with autonomy to create their own fun adventure.
Play and Childhood development
As an occupational therapist, my interest in play is guided by the way that it can direct development of a child. As children play, they not only have fun, but may develop emotional, social, cognitive and physical skills. The skills that can be developed through play can set the stage for skill building and success throughout childhood and into adulthood. A child who learns early on how to play well with other kids, how to take turns and share, may become a good communicator and team member in higher levels of schooling and into a workplace.
In my short career so far as a pediatric occupational therapist, I have formatted most of my assessments and interventions in the form of play to get my client excited to participate. Often times, my assessments as an occupational therapist come from purely observing the child playing with various games and activities I provide, or that are available in their homes. Without labelling a “problem” or condition, I can see what we might work on as a goal by watching the way the interact with their environment, with me and with their caregivers. Playing make believe to encourage practicing handwriting skills, building lego and playing with playdough for pre-handwriting skills, playing with mitten puppets to practice donning winter gloves… you name it, if I can imagine it or find it on pinterest it’s part of my sessions. Children are eager to play if it is something they enjoy, so why not give them the tools they need to learn in a format that makes them excited! This also allows me to empower the parents to get actively involved in their child’s therapeutic goals. If your child doesn’t want to engage in “therapy”, you can incorporate some of the skills I coach you in while you are interacting with your child during play time or media/tv time. Therapy doesn’t have to be boring or table top based, it can be creative and fun (and often should be for young kids).
“play therapy is a form of child- led counselling”
Playing also becomes a therapy when carried out by therapists or clinicians trained in mental health and behavioural techniques. Most children under the age of 11 are unable to engage in abstract thought, which is needed to express ourselves verbally and understand complex feelings and motives. (Bratton, S., Rhine, T. and Jones, L., 2000) Where adults are able to communicate through words, children may have a bigger opportunity to express themselves through play and activity. Most children don’t have the breadth of vocabulary to express how they feel, but can use the language of play to share their experiences. This is where play can be seen more than just an activity, or an educational tool, but also a window into the child’s experiences, emotions, mental wellbeing. Play therapy is a form of child-led counselling. It provides a safe place for children to work through their feelings without being judged. While children play with puppets, costumes, draw pictures or read books, they often play out the experiences that they are experiencing. This gives them the opportunity to express stressful thoughts, see their troubles from a different perspective, or talk through potential solutions. When I have incorporated play based interventions into my sessions have been the times that I learn the most about my clients, and we make the best therapeutic relationships and breakthroughs. Play therapy looks different for every child, but by playing to their interests, can have positive effects on treatment goals. Research conducted in 2000 looked at 94 play therapy studies involving childrend and revealed positive effect across modality, gender, and different settings. Positive play effects were highest when a parent was involved in their child’s treatment (Bratton, Rhine and Jones, 2000). It is important to remember that as a parent, you are even more important in your child’s success than their therapist. Their therapist might have experience, specific knowledge and a different kind of bond with your child, but they only engage with your child a small fraction of their lives. YOU are the key to therapy…just like the majority of change in physiotherapy happens when you’re doing your exercises between sessions, the work that you engage in with your child between occupational therapy sessions, the reading and talking with your child that occurs after school… this is the game changer.
Whether you’re practicing dressing, handwriting, reading, learning about emotions and how to cope with the hard ones… remember that you can do these through play, and connect with your child on a different level. Through play we can start building the base for happy children, allowing them to create and explore mastery in their worlds, and practice life skills, setting them up to face challenges in their future.
If you want more information about the roles you can play in facilitating play with your child, visit The Power of Play – A Research Summary on Play and Learning by Dr Rachel E. White https://www.childrensmuseums.org/images/MCMResearchSummary.pdf
For more information about occupational therapy, check out my other blog post “Occupational therapy… So you do physio?” and why you’re kind of right but only just.
Bratton, S., Rhine, T. and Jones, L. (2000) A Meta-Analysis of the Play Therapy Outcome Research from 1947 to present. International Journal of Play Therapy. October 2000.
The Power of Play – A Research Summary on Play and Learning by Dr Rachel E. White https://www.childrensmuseums.org/images/MCMResearchSummary.pdf