Did you know that play is the foundation for all learning for children? Children understand everything about the world by experiencing things in their bodies first and then expanding that understanding into more and more abstract form. In fact, engaging a young child in active play is the best way to prepare her for later academic success. Occupational therapy (OT) uses a person’s “occupation” as the therapeutic modality for skill building. For children, their occupation is play. Pediatric OT’s are experts on play and how play can be structured to support skill-building.
The first step in structuring play for a child is to make sure there is time in the child’s life for all kinds of play. Many of today’s children are busy with scheduled activities every day of the week. Structured activities provide opportunities for learning to follow directions, work cooperatively with team members, and develop specific physical skills. For example, throwing and catching help develop eye-hand coordination and upper extremity strength and control. Kicking develops balance, motor planning and eye-foot coordination. Learning the rules of a game or following a complicated pre-planned play scheme helps children develop memory and also more complex thinking and planning skills called “executive” skills. Executive skills are essential for carrying out complex higher order thinking and planning for activities such as writing a research paper, planning a dinner party or plotting a career path. Playing games with rules or devising rules as a group is one way that children begin to gain competency in this area.
While team sports and structured extra-curricular activities provide one kind of play, kids also need unstructured time for free play. This type of play allows a child to meander along a creative path of exploration and discovery about how a particular toy or activity works. Exploratory play builds motor strength and coordination while engaging the child’s mind in problem solving and experimentation. These activities can be solitary or social. Those that involve other kids also offer social learning opportunities. Free-flowing games of capture the flag or even tag require the players to agree at the outset, on the basic rules of play. The game is a social contract between the players that they all understand and will abide by the rules of play. This is an opportunity for children to develop and practice social skills that become the basis of adult relationships.
Somewhere between structured team play and totally unstructured free play, parents can provide time for their children to play in an unstructured way, in a setting that has been prepared to help them build particular skills. For example, making time to play ball provides opportunities for all kinds of skill development. There are many other ways to develop skills by providing your child with opportunities for specific types of play. Here are a few examples:
- Walking on a line helps develop balance skills as well as promoting an understanding of how to line up letters and words on a line during writing. Playing games where the child walks on curbs or lines on a basketball court are great ways to engage a child in this activity.
- Swinging provides input to the vestibular system, the sensory system that tells the brain about the position of the head in space and whether or not you are moving, what direction and how fast. Given the opportunity, children will engage with swings in various positions, including seated or on their stomachs. Sometimes, children can be seen on swings, on their stomach, twisting the ropes and then picking up their feet so the swing rotates as it unwinds. All of this experimentation provides vital stimulation to the vestibular system which is instrumental in helping kids develop good balance, posture, and spatial awareness.
- Learning to move backwards supports development of balance skills and provides children with a concrete way to understand the concept of “take away” (subtraction). For a child who is challenged by the concept of subtraction, playing follow-the-leader with backwards movements, climbing up and then down the steps to a sliding board, or engaging in activities that require pulling and walking backwards is helpful. Another good activity is backwards jump-roping. This can be done even with young children, by having the child hold the rope in two hands, flip it back over their heads, step over it backwards, then repeat. Some children who exhibit a fear of going on swings are doing so because of discomfort with moving backwards.
- Playing on all fours is a great way to develop many skills that are the foundations of good fine motor and writing skills. This activity develops trunk strength, shoulder stability, wrist extension, and arches in the hand. Young kids seem to delight in engaging in this activity while pretending to be various animals. Older children can be encouraged to do this through use of play tunnels, caves, and obstacle courses.
- Rolling provides lots of movement and tactile input as well as helping young children learn about the two sides of their bodies and how they work together. This in turn, contributes to good postural control, body awareness, and spatial awareness.
The most important thing is to help your child make time for all kinds of play. Individual and group, structured and unstructured- each play situation presents different opportunities for learning and skill building. Playing different kinds of games with your child and exposing him to a variety of activities will support physical development (including both fine and gross motor skills), promote social skills, build language skills, and foster development of thinking skills. Best of all – it’s fun!