Play Like a Child

By: Jessica Drake-Simmons, M.S. CCC-SLP

“Play is the highest form of research.” –Albert Einstein

Jacob and mom laughing
Photo by Pat Behles

As a speech-language pathologist, one of the skills that was an initial struggle for me was —PLAYING!  Unfortunately, learning how to play is not part of the graduate school curriculum.  I could read books, do puzzles or play games all day long.  I loved doing structured activities with kids.   But the unstructured play that kids longed for?   Ughh…it was the worst!   I didn’t know what to do with those plastic dinosaurs staring back at me and I just couldn’t handle crashing cars with little Vinny for the eight-millionth time.

Photo by Marita Blanken

Then I learned how important play is.  WOW.  It is REALLY important!  Play is essential for healthy brain development.  Play develops cognition, language, social emotional skills, motor skills, problem solving, imagination and concentration.  Play is hands on.  Play is how children learn!  It provides children the opportunity to learn about themselves and the world around them.

As a new clinician, what I needed to do was turn off my grown-up, outcome-oriented brain.  The cute little kids prying into the box of cars were the ones who could be my teachers.  Once I let my little professor friends teach me how to think like a kid, playing quickly became the most effective way I could reach many of the young kids I worked with.

When you are playing—it’s not about quizzing kids on what they know, or having them memorize colors.  It’s about having fun!  Being imaginative!  Problem solving!  Discovering!  There isn’t a neat little instruction manual for how to engage in unstructured play.  The best instructor will be your child.

Here are a few tips to enhance your learning experience from your little professor of play.

  1. Sit on the floor with your child.
  2. Limit the distractions. Turn off the TV and put your cell phone out of reach.  Being a FUN, ENGAGED, IMAGINATIVE play partner takes cognitive effort and it is important to be fully present.
  3. Watch your child. Spend some time observing what your child likes to play with and how they like to play with it.
  4. Join your child in play. Play like they are playing.  Do not take over and try to be the teacher. Rather, be a partner in the play experience.
Photo by Megan Dibblee

Your primary goal for this experience is to have fun with your child!  The more you participate in rich play experiences, you will recognize the many teachable moments that occur while playing.

After you have established your role as a play partner, you can model some play expansion.  You can introduce a variation of the activity.  You can lead your child to some possibilities they may not have imagined.  Like that box that she is playing with, it could become a boat, a basketball hoop, an ice cream shop, a lion’s cage, a bus, a bed, or a rocket ship.  The options are limitless!  Lead your child to different ideas to see what they latch onto and how they further develop the play scheme.

In order to provide the best play experiences—it is important to have some good materials!  The best types of toys do not have an ‘on’ switch.  Toys that have directions or are electronic limit the use of problem solving and imagination.  The best types of toys are things like blocks, dolls, farm sets, pretend food and balls.  For additional ideas on toy selection by age, check out our previous post on the top holiday gifts and toys for kids.

As parents, teachers, caregivers and therapists, our job is to teach kids.  However, there is something that our kids can teach us…and that is how to live in the moment, use our imaginations, experience joy in the simple things and PLAY!

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