Learning Through Play

THE ACT OF PLAYING is an important tool that influence’s a child’s life. The primary goals of childhood are to grow, learn, and have fun playing. It is often through play that children learn to make sense of the world around them. It is a child’s “job” or “occupation” to play to develop physical coordination, emotional maturity, social skills to interact with other children, and self-confidence to try new experiences and explore new environments.

Occupational Therapy practitioners have expertise in evaluating children’s neurological, muscular, and emotional development; and determining the effects of infant and childhood illness on growth and development.

What Can Parents and Families Do? What Can an Occupational Therapy Practitioner Do?

Encourage sensory rich play by using balls, sand and water toys, slides, swings, finger paints, and magnets. Sensory play provides children to use all of their senses – smell, touch, sound, vision, and movement – integrated into what appears to be a single activity.

Help adapt toys or modify the environment to provide optimal sensory input without overwhelming the child.

Encourage manipulative play, such as using play dough, LEGOs, and board games. Toys such as puzzles, pegboards, beads, and lacing cards help improve the child’s eye–hand coordination and dexterity.

Recommend toys and play activities that provide the “just right” challenge for the child, so he or she learns while having fun. The occupational therapy practitioner can also recommend ways to build on the child’s strengths and abilities.

Promote imaginative or pretend play with things like dolls, G.I. Joe figurines and stuffed animals, toy furniture, puppets, and telephones. Pretend play encourages creativity and role playing and provides an opportunity to rehearse social skills.

Offer play opportunities that encourage turn taking and problem solving. Consider family routines and priorities when recommending play strategies. Observe, identify, and develop play strategies that promote a healthy lifestyle and relationships.

Choose toys that are appropriate to the child’s age and/or maturity level. They do not have to be pricey or challenging for the child to benefit. Common objects, such as pots and pans, empty boxes, spools of thread, shoelaces, and wooden spoons are readily accessible and encourage children to use their imagination as there are no moving parts.

Suggest toys that will help the child develop particular skills, while having fun. Think of ways for family members to be a part of child’s play, family is the child’s first playmate. Suggest toys and play activities that are fun for children of all abilities and ages. Collaborate with educators and caregivers to enhance playtime at home, recess at school, and during community outings.

Remember when choosing a toy to consider whether a child must be supervised while playing with it. Toys should not have small pieces that come apart easily or can be ingested.

Help determine what toys will be safe, developmentally appropriate, and funspecifically for your child, based on an evaluation and in consideration of the child’s and family’s needs and goals.

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Need more information on how occupational therapists can promote play for children?

Occupational therapy practitioners promote play for all children, with or without disabilities. Play challenges could indicate a need for further assessment. If you would like to consult an Occupational Therapist directly, contact your local Occupation Therapy clinic. You can also ask your physician, other health professionals, and your school district’s director of special education for information on how you can access an Occupational Therapist in your area.


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