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Summertime Play: Learning What Play is and How to Help Your Child Learn to Play

What is Play? Why is it Important?

How many times have you observed a therapy session and thought that the child and therapist are just playing? Or walked into the playroom to see that your child dumped out all the toys you just cleaned up for the 10th time? Although some types of play can seem frustrating or repetitive, play is actually one of the primary occupations of children, and it is the “way the child learns what no one can teach them” (Tanta & Knox, 2015, p. 483). Through play, children learn how to work well with others, move their bodies in the right ways, become more flexible, and progress through developmental milestones.

What Prevents Children from Playing Effectively?

There can be many barriers to children playing, and some of these challenges do not just simply disappear. Disabilities in particular can make it difficult for a child to physically access things within the home, successfully engage with toys, and/or interact with adults or peers of the same age. Busy schedules filled with school, medical appointments, therapies, or other family obligations can also decrease the amount of time children are free to play on their own.

Use a “Toy Inventory” to Encourage more Play

Toys are often a window to increase playfulness in the home. Here are a few simple steps that you can take to support your child’s needs when playing. This resource could even be shared with friends or families who may ask for gift ideas before a birthday or holiday:

Step 1: Look around at the child’s toys and make sure they fall under most of these categories:

a. Are appropriate for the child’s age and developmental level

b. Keep the child’s interest

c. Have longevity (toys that can be used for many years and in a

variety of ways, like Legos)

d. Are safe and durable

e. Stimulate learning

Step 2: Write a list of toys in the home with the following traits:

a. Manipulative toys (blocks, beads, play-doh, construction toys, puzzles, dress-up toys,

bath toys, sand or water toys):

b. Make-believe (dolls, stuffed animals, puppets, transportation toys):

c. Creative toys (musical toys, arts and crafts supplies, music or creativity apps on a

digital device):

d. Learning toys (games, books, computer or tablets with learning apps, specific-skill

toys like science models):

e. Sensory toys (crash pads, swings, bouncy therapy balls, mouth or chew sticks)

(Tanta & Knox, 2015)

“Special Time” Between Parent and Child for More Meaningful Play!

Often, the joyful, creative, or independent parts of play can get lost among the rules, the difficulty of the activity, or the child behaviors or skills required to complete the activity. These are the main guidelines for “special time” to help build social connections between parent and child that can support the playfulness of play! Refer to @drbeckyathome on Instagram for more simple advice and practical strategies.

1. Spend 10-15 minutes per day.

2. Name it: “mommy-johnny special time”

3. Allow the child to choose the activity.

4. Participate and imitate your child by joining in the child’s ideas.

5. Describe what the child is doing. (For example: “You’re building a tower”.)

6. Copy: if your child is drawing a sun, draw your own sun on your own piece of paper.

7. Reflective Listening: If your child says, “I want to play trucks!” say back, “You want to

play trucks!”

8. Connect: “I love this time with you.”

The Developmental Milestones of Play

Although play can involve many different components, children develop different play skills at different ages. For example, young infants and toddlers may first learn how to use and love “cause and effect” toys like a toy that sings when a button is pushed. Then, a child may learn to put toys in and out of containers. This specifically is one of the reasons why toddlers love to dump things out of freshly organized containers! Then, the child may be ready to learn how to stack blocks and use shape sorters. Refer to the “Learning Through Play” fact sheet for recommended toys and activities for children and teens that encourage your child’s development.

Written by: Gina Larson, OTS

Edited by: Whitney Redler, OTD, OTR/L


Bundy, A. C. (2012). Children at Play. In S. Lane & A. C. Bundy (Eds.), Kids can be Kids (pp.

28–43). F.A. Davis Company.

Tanta, T. J., & Knox, S. H. (2015). Play. In J. Case-Smith, & J. Clifford O’Brien, Occupational

Therapy for Children and Adolescents (pp. 416-460). St. Louis: Elsevier.

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