Welcome to our Two Takes series! We’re taking on hot topics and commonly asked questions from parents with a unique team approach. We’re putting our SLP (Kenzie) and OT (Sarah) brains together to bring you two perspectives on topics relevant to your child.
Today, we’re sharing two takes on one of our favorite topics: play! See how we use our different professional lenses to answer frequently asked questions about play below:
Why is play important?
Speech: Play is a crucial skill that supports early language acquisition! Development of play skills mirrors and builds a foundation for the development of language. Exploratory play supports understanding of cause-and-effect relationships. As babies engage in reciprocal play such as peek-a-boo or playful babbling, they learn that their verbal and nonverbal actions have power and can affect their environment (such as gaining a playful response from a caregiver). Language itself is an abstract concept, and as a toddler’s play transitions from functional play into more abstract, pretend play, cognitive understanding of language concepts can be further developed. For example, the act of pushing a car and saying “Vroom vroom” demonstrates a child’s understanding that the plastic object they are holding represents a car, and then a further abstraction develops that the word “car” represents both the plastic object and the real life-size car on the street. As children grow older and begin to engage in creative make-believe play such as dress-up, they begin to learn how to sort objects into meaningful groups and create abstract representations of real world objects or situations.
OT: Play is a child’s primary occupation! It’s literally your child’s job! Children learn about their world through sensory exploration, and play is a natural way for children to engage their sensory systems and form neurological connections to develop motor skills. Play helps children build coordination, social skills, self-regulation, and self-confidence. It’s a natural way for children to engage in healthy risk-taking and to explore new environments.
How are play and social skills connected?
Speech: Play provides ample opportunities for early social skills. Simple games such as stacking blocks or rolling a ball introduce the idea of turn-taking. Turn-taking in play serves as the foundation for turn-taking in conversation. Eventually, cooperative play with peers provides children with opportunities to learn how to navigate new social interactions such as disagreements, working together, listening to others, and explaining ideas clearly. These interactions provide children with the practice they need to use social and pragmatic language skills to communicate with peers.
OT: Motor planning, motor planning, motor planning! Literally everything we do is a motor plan. Motor planning is the ability to come up with an idea for what we want to do, plan and sequence how to do it, and physically execute the plan with our bodies. To successfully participate in play on any level (independent or collaborative), children need to have age-appropriate motor planning skills. Children with motor planning challenges commonly experience barriers to participation in age-appropriate play. For example, they may not be able to plan and physically execute a motor action required for a play activity such as stacking blocks. Social skills are a high-level, dynamic form of motor planning. Playing with others requires the ability to quickly process unpredictable situations and constantly adapt one’s motor planning. There are a lot of moving parts to peer play, and children who have challenges with motor planning may have difficulty participating in play situations with others, which can cause them to miss out on important social learning experiences.
Why does my child always want to play with the same toys in the same way?
Speech: Children who have difficulty with problem-solving skills, perspective taking, and flexible thinking may have difficulty using toys in a variety of ways. The best way to help support your child in learning to play with a toy appropriately or in a different way is to model it and provide the appropriate language or play scheme to go with it. For example, it can be helpful to model problem solving through new toys or new ways of playing by using a technique such as explaining your thinking out loud as you problem solve. As you model your own verbal problem solving, your child will learn from the example and be able to apply strategies they have observed.
OT: Children learn about the world through play. Watching a child play is like watching a scientist perform an experiment – they test out different ways to interact with their world and gather information based on the feedback they receive (thanks to their sensory systems). When children execute a play idea and it works, they will receive reinforcement to do it again. It’s so fun to watch the sense of pride that comes with successful skill-building through playful exploration. For children with motor planning difficulties, they may have to go through a LOT of trial-and-error before they experience success during play. Children with sensory processing challenges can also experience a series of negative feedback in their play experiments if their sensory systems aren’t giving them correct information about their environment. Children quickly learn that they don’t like feeling unsuccessful, so it’s often easiest to stick with what they know. This can result in repetitive or rigid play patterns to keep things predictable. We can encourage children to expand their play skills by modeling different ways to use familiar objects or prompting them with questions about a toy’s affordances (different ways to use).
Why does my child like to watch other kids play, but never want to join?
Speech: If your child is demonstrating difficulty joining other children in play, fear and sensory overload can often be the root of the problem (if so, please Sarah’s explanation below!) However, many children with social and pragmatic skill deficits may be interested in playing with other children, but do not possess the social skills or understanding of social cues needed to successfully navigate the experience. Teaching a child social skills such as whole-body listening, effective communication, identifying and understanding body language, inferencing and prediction skills, navigating differences, perspective taking, and social problem solving can give them the confidence they need to engage with peers.
OT: While many of us can observe an activity briefly and then jump in and give a try, children with poor body awareness or motor planning challenges often require significantly more opportunities for practice or observation before participating in a play activity. Children with over-responsive sensory systems can also be easily overwhelmed by a multisensory play environment, so they may require more time to observe a play situation to figure out what to expect and avoid a “fight or flight” nervous system response than can often accompany novel environments or situations. Observing other children in play is often a way for children to feel that they are successfully participating in play at a level they are comfortable. A child may slowly work up to active participation in play once they’ve figured out what to expect and how to participate. Sometimes attempting to jump into a play activity before a child feels ready can cause them to feel unsuccessful and lead to resistance to further play participation. In addition to observing vs. participating in play, you may notice other common patterns of play that children with sensory processing and motor planning challenges can exhibit:
- Always the leader. Children with motor planning or sensory processing difficulties often feel a strong need to be in control of the situation to keep it predictable and set themselves up for success (this is why many children are inflexible in their play). Always being in charge of play activities is a way to stay in control and keep surprises to a minimum.
- Always the follower. Some children have difficulty with the initiation stage of motor planning (coming up with an idea for what they want to do), so they may rely on others to take the lead on initiation. Additionally, having a model for what to do can eliminate a problem-solving step for children with initiation difficulties when attempting new activities.
- Prefers one-on-one or small group play. Children with sensory modulation challenges (this can often look like self-regulation difficulties) are often over-stimulated in settings with a lot of people where things can feel unpredictable and out of their control. There is a lot less room for unpredictability with only one peer or a handful of peers than in a large group setting, such as a team sport. Oftentimes, children with these difficulties may prefer to play with familiar peers and be more hesitant to interact with novel peers, this feels more unpredictable to them.
- Prefers to play with adults or older children. Similar to only wanting to play in one-on-one or small group settings, children with sensory modulation challenges who can easily become overwhelmed often feel more comfortable with adults or older children than with peers, as older individuals are less impulsive and less likely to be a “wild card” during play. Additionally, older individuals have more experience with motor planning skills involved in play (ideation, problem solving, etc.), and tend to take the lead or offer solutions, which can help children to feel more successful in play. Remember, it’s important to build play skills with play partners of all ages!
- Prefers imaginative play. Oftentimes, children with motor planning difficulties have a disconnect between their brain and body. They may have a difficult time coordinating their body to make it do what they want, but their brain is full of big, creative ideas! Imaginative play is often favored by children who have challenges with the execution phase of motor planning. Adults can help encourage these motor planning skills by facilitating merging physical play with imaginative play.
- Prefers sedentary play. There can be a few reasons children avoid sedentary play. Sensory avoiders may be easily overwhelmed with a lot of moving parts, and prefer to keep things in a controlled environment. Children with poor body awareness, coordination, or balance may prefer more stationary activities. Children with poor postural control may prefer sedentary play because they tend to fatigue during movement-based activities.
- Dislikes independent play. Children who dislike independent play may either be experiencing difficulty with sustained attention (often related to sensory processing challenges), or have difficulty with ideation and initiation of tasks (aka coming up with an idea for what they want to do). Adults can help encourage independent play skills by setting up an activity for their child and modeling how to independently complete it. If your child resists playing independently, try setting a visual timer (start with a short 1-2 minute timer and build up from there) or using a visual schedule to cue for how many trials your child should complete (ex: 5 puzzle pieces, 3 balls in the basket, etc.).
What kind of toys or games should I buy for my child?
Speech: At every age, books are always my #1 recommended toy for language development! If your child is having difficulty engaging with books, you can try more engaging, exciting books with hidden flaps, noise-making buttons, textured pages, or books that are themed for your child’s favorite topic (ex: dinosaurs). For infants, cause-and-effect toys such as toys that light up or pop open support learning of cause-and-effect relationships. For young toddlers, I recommend toys that can be sorted or played with functionally, such as colored blocks for stacking. Great toys for supporting development of pretend play are plastic animals or foods and kitchen toys.
OT: There are so many possible answers to this question, depending on what kind of play skills your child is working on (collaborative play, independent play, etc.). While I could go on and on about toys to promote different kinds of play skills, I would say a good rule of thumb is to provide your child with toys that don’t do all the work for them. Electronic toys are eye-catching and fun, but sometimes these toys do all the work and children watch passively, rather than build play skills. Toys that require problem-solving and active engagement can promote development of motor planning skills, visual motor integration, and more! This could be a ball, blocks, or animal figurines. Better yet, anything can be a toy! Open up your cupboards and pull out an item (or two or three) and see what your child comes up with! Model different ways to use new objects and objects or toys that they are already familiar with. Play is a great way to work on flexibility of thinking and ideation, which are important building blocks for motor planning skills.
How can I get my children to play together without fighting?
Speech: Provide opportunities for children to work together toward a common goal, rather than competing or working against each other. In addition, they may do better when provided with structure and examples while they are initially learning a difficult social skill. If there is a common goal for both children to receive or achieve something motivating, they are more likely to be motivated to work together as they learn to interact and play without fighting. For example, you might suggest that they work together to create an obstacle course or a scavenger hunt to complete in order to find out what’s for dinner or dessert that night. Other games might also involve blindfolding and describing or giving directions to find each other’s snack. Team building games that require communication can support social skills between siblings, such as turn taking, perspective sharing, and explaining their own thinking. Some children will need the support of a modeled example, such as, “I see that your sister took a turn and tried it this way, but it didn’t work. How could you change it during your turn?”
OT: Structure, structure, structure. Play can be very unpredictable and dynamic in nature, so some children struggle to play with peers or siblings without things ending in a fight. It’s easy to get upset when things don’t go the way you were planning or if another child’s skills exceed your abilities. While working toward unstructured, dynamic play is a great goal, start with setting up activities with clear structure and providing previewing for expected rules and behaviors to set siblings up for success. For example, start with a classic turn-taking game, and identify a designated “waiting spot” for a child who has difficulty with impulse control and waiting their turn. Discuss all the rules of the game and have your children repeat it back to you to ensure understanding. Reinforce when your children exhibit these expected behaviors and follow the rules. If one sibling wants to change or add a rule, discuss it as a group and help guide them to check in with all group members and come to an agreement before making a change.