“Play is the work of childhood.” Says Jean Piaget, one of the great modern psychologists. Why? Because the work of children is to explore and discover the world, and play is where children can safely accomplish this difficult task. Play also teaches and builds many foundational skills for cognitive and linguistic development. When a child has not progressed through the various stages of play, they may be delayed in their cognitive development, language acquisition and/or social skills. This is why speech and language therapy sometimes involves goals that revolve around play — because play skills are foundational. A child may need practice with joint attention (where while playing or talking about an object the child looks from the object to you, and back to the object), understanding cause and effect, he may not know how to take turns in play, he may not understand objects and their relationships in space. The child may be stuck playing in a concrete way when she could be using her imagination to have her toys swimming through the sea or flying through the air. As a child gets even older, he may need help with abstraction — can a banana be used as a fake telephone? Can he pretend he is a fish? With many of these skills, the best way to teach them to children is to model them and have children imitate. What does this mean? Often teaching play skills looks like playing with your child! This is good news.
As speech language pathologists, parents, teachers, and caregivers of children, we need to all recognize that play can be both the means and the goal. Play is not a waste of time, and play is not a distraction from the real work that needs to be done. When you toss a ball back and forth with your child, you’re practicing hand eye coordination and turn taking. When you give your child pots and pans to bang on with a spoon, you are teaching them cause and effect: I hit the pot, it makes a loud noise. When you goofily pretend that their backpack is a turtle shell, you are teaching them pretend play and opening up their imagination to a world of other possibilities. So while increasing age appropriate play can be the goal, play can also be used to target other cognitive linguistic goals such as improved articulation and all kinds of language skills.
The best part about using play as a canvas for learning is that it should be fun for everyone. The hardest part is getting on the child’s level. If your child wants to play with blocks and doesn’t know what to make, you can provide choices: “should we build a barn for our farm animals, a maze for our bug toy, or a castle for a king and queen?” Once the child uses his/her words to choose an activity, take turns. You place a block, your child places a block. Be sure to act excited and engaged in the activity— this will help them get into the activity as well. Ask teachers and therapists what goals your child is working on and incorporate these into play if you can. But even if you can’t, there are many skills learned through play that you may not even know you are targeting: turn taking, creativity, conversations, actions, pronouns, etc. Below I have listed some games and activities that are easy to recreate at home with toys/objects you already have. So get playing!
If your child is working on joint attention:
- Get on their level (crouch down to their level to encourage them to look at you), hold objects in front of them and act excited about their choices and then play with the one they express interest in.
- Excitedly repeat what they say as a way of showing them that you’ve heard them and you are now following their lead. o When they use the wrong words, model the correct words.
- When you get a new toy, stand away from your child and say, “Wow! Come look at this _____.” If they have trouble with eye contact, hold the object up near your face so that they are encouraged to look at both you and the toy.
If your child is working on pronouns:
- Use bubbles and have the child say, “Your turn” “My turn” depending on who they want to blow the bubbles.
- Find a favorite small toy and place it on the child’s nose, ear, eye, etc. and say, “Where is the ____?” And then put it on your nose, ear, eye, etc. Depending on how many words they are able to string together you can work on saying “my nose, your nose,” or longer sentences such as, “The butterfly is on my nose.”
If your child is working on answering WH questions (Where, What, Who, When, Why)
- Hide a favorite object and have your child find it while asking, “WHERE is the ____?” Have them answer “In the drawer,” “on the counter,” “behind the chair.” This is also a great way to teach prepositions!
- Give each of your children different colored candy/stickers/toys and ask them, “Who has the orange skittle?” “Who has the red skittle?” etc.
- When out in public/going to the doctor’s, dentist’s etc. make sure you’re asking your child “WHO is that?” “WHO are we going to see?”
- When friends are coming over for dinner say, “Susie, Billy and Sarah are coming over for dinner.” “WHO is coming for dinner?”
- Sit on different pieces of furniture in the house or go in different rooms and ask, “Who is on the sofa?” “Who is on the chair?” Alternatively, ask, “WHERE are we?” Run from room to room—“We are in the kitchen!” “We are in the bathroom!”
If your child is working on following directions
- Write some silly directions down on pieces of paper and throw them in a hat. Have your child pick them out and hand them to you. Read “Clap your hands, then spin around.” “Jump 2 times after you touch your head.”
If your child is working on making requests:
- Use closed ended toys (such as puzzles, stringing toys or any activity that has an obvious ending.)
- Withhold the item the child needs next and have them ask for the item before you hand it to them. Whether that means saying the name “fire truck” or saying “more” or making the sign for “more.”
- Whenever you are playing with any toys, withhold the item you think they may want next until they ask for it. Encourage them by repeating the word after they ask for it in an excited way. “Yay! Ball!”
- Hide their favorite snack in a Tupperware and have them ask you for help opening it.
- Before you pick up your child, always have them say “up” first.
As you can see, not all of these suggestions necessarily look like “playing,” but any and all of these goals can be incorporated into your day to day lives whether you are having fun at dinner time, at bath time, and while getting dressed in the morning. The sky is the limit, and if you are having fun and being silly, there is a good chance your child will be having fun as well!