“Play is the work of a child.” ~Maria Montessori
“We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.” – George Bernard Shaw
Play is so much more than it first appears. When a child plays, he learns. As a very young child, he is hypothesis testing in a very concrete way (e.g., This will taste good-I’ll put it in my mouth–ew that didn’t taste good, maybe I’ll see what happens if I bang on it, If I stack one more block my tower will be so tall–Uhoh it fell down–I’ll try again with one less block, etc.). Although this hypothesis testing isn’t always verbalized, it is critical for independent learning in all five domains of development. For communication, early play experiences are the basis for gaining knowledge about the world. As a child moves towards preschool age, play helps children learn more complex ideas. A preschooler uses play to hypothesis test about how objects/people relate to each other (e.g., to understand differing perspectives and how to solve problems, etc.). The fact that playing is fun makes the desire to participate in multiple learning experiences a given for most kids.
“Children learn as they play. Most importantly, in play children learn how to learn.” – O. Fred Donaldson
For kids with special needs, play is an especially important vehicle for learning. When learning and communicating is difficult, play offers a child a way to learn and enjoy interactions. A speech-language pathologist, early interventionist, teacher or other developmental professional can offer parents ideas that can be used to promote development in the context of play with their child. Whether your child is developing communication skills as expected, is advanced or is demonstrating delays, play is ALWAYS beneficial to learning and building relationships and will grow your child’s language. The biggest hurdle I encounter when helping a family facilitate communication with their young child or even an older child with a communication disorder, is adults don’t remember how to play! With age we become self-conscious and our imagination is often dimmed by the constraints of reality. What a bummer!!!
I have 3 rules of play:
- Anything is a toy.
- Anyone can be or do anything.
- The sillier the better.
Anything can be a toy. A paper towel roll can be a sword, a bugle, a megaphone, a spy glass, etc. A lego can be a car, a phone, a tapping musical instrument, etc. A teddy bear can be a sneaky villian, a hurt baby bear, etc.
Anyone can be or do anything. Sure you can be an astronaut waiting for take off while we wait in a doctor’s office! Sure you can dig a tunnel underground and be King of the Moles after watching the movie “Thumbalina”. Of course I can be the evil dragon you sneak up on and slay with a paper towel tube sword as I make your bed!
The sillier the better. I find adults have an easier time getting into play the more unrealistic it is. If you are a monster (scary or cuddly), there are no rules, no way you “should” act. To be really successful and fun, do a little pre-planning with your child (a great language learning experience by the way). It can be as simple as:
Who are you pretending to be?
Who am I?
What will happen First, Next and Last?
Not feeling your creative juices flowing yet? There is a great book that I have used for years called, “The New Language of Toys”. It gives ideas about how to play with developmentally-appropriate toys for ages 0-5. It says it is for children with special needs in the title, but the suggestions in the book are very applicable to kids who have typical communication development. What I love about the book is that it gives practical ideas and takes the creative play load off the parents/other adults who are playing with a child. I’ve seen adults who were initially very hesitant to get on the floor and play with their child, open up and begin to enjoy play after looking up an idea in “The New Language of Toys.” I also like it because it gives parents and family members great ideas for birthday and holiday gifts for children that are interactive and developmentally-appropriate.