The Power of Play
Imagine Eddy, a 4-year old boy, in the playroom with his mom. He tells her, “Let’s build a construction site!” Eddy drags an empty box across the floor and declares it to be a skyscraper. He then pulls out an assortment of trucks and drives them over to the site. His mom takes out a container of blocks offering, “Oh, Eddy, look at these giant boulders in our site!” Eddy replies, “My truck can move them!” And the stage is set for a beautiful play sequence that could last for hours…in a perfect world of course.
We all know that children love to play, but, did you know that play, when done right, helps children’s brains grow? Imaginative play that is guided and open-ended is like fertilizer to a child’s brain. In the past several decades an increasing amount of research has gone into looking at how play impacts a child’s cognitive skills. Studies have shown that kids who spent time playing in a specific way and on a regular basis were: more creative, better at problem solving, less anxious, better at language, better at memory, and more socially skilled. These are a lot of benefits!
Here are links to two great videos (both of which I am not affiliated with) on pretend play that show nice examples of play with an explanation on why it is so important.
PBS video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C6nVZ1t107A
Tulsa world news https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yMwqMuRtGDs
As a pediatric speech language pathologist, I use play as a means for teaching a variety of language, cognitive and social emotional skills. As a result, parents often ask me how to play with their child. It is true that in a therapeutic situation there may be specific strategies to modify the play and address a child’s specific needs, but there are also general suggestions that can be used to enhance any family’s play environment:
1. Create an environment that encourages open play.
Turn off the T.V.! And all other screens for that matter. We have all heard that screen time should be limited, especially for young children. According to the American Pediatric Association, children under two shouldn’t watch any T.V. Televisions, computers, smart phones and tablets are integral parts of our lives, but they are not conducive to quality play time. So turn them off for a while each day.
Rotate toys and limit the number they can access. Children often get bored if they play with the same toys day in and day out. They can also get overwhelmed by too many choices. Select a few toys to have out at the child’s level and store the others in a closet or high shelf. Rotate the selection every few weeks.
Look for toys to serve a variety of purposes. Open ended play encourages creativity, social skills, and language development. Blocks, dolls, stuffed animals, play-doh/clay, empty boxes, crayons, glue, “dress up” clothes, old purses and accessories, books, and pots and pans all make for great options. Have an assortment of these types of toys available at your child’s level and in a safe area of the house, and remember to rotate the selection!
2. Get involved.
Find a little time each day. We are all incredibly busy and it is hard to imagine, and often impractical to carve out hours of play time each day. Instead, look for shorter intervals of maybe 10-20 minutes, to join in and play with your child.
Show some emotion! Be in the moment with your child during playtime. Show your child that you are happy and excited to be playing with him.
Encourage and expand your child’s skills. Talk about what you are doing together. Parallel talk is a language building strategy where the adult narrates what the child is doing. Observe what your child does with the toys then copy her, after all imitation is the highest form of flattery! While you play alongside him, give suggestions to expand the play- maybe the dump truck could be filled with blocks to carry or maybe the baby doll needs a diaper change.
3. Let your child lead the way.
Follow the child’s lead. Let your child choose the toys and how to play with them. After all, you’ve already created a safe and stimulating environment for playing. Now let their imagination run wild and those neural pathways to creative thought will multiply. You are there as a guide and a participant, but not to dominate. You can encourage ideas by expanding on them, but remember to use your child’s idea as the starting point.
Give wait time. Wait time is a strategy I use frequently in speech therapy. The adult models a new skill, maybe a new word or another step in the play sequence, then waits several seconds for a response. Waiting is important because it gives children time to process the new information and to create a plan for what to do with it. Maybe he will repeat the new word back to you or copy your play idea in his own sequence. Or maybe she’ll have a question. Who knows, the important part is to wait and see.
Hopefully you are feeling empowered to set aside time for play with your child. Play has a powerful impact on early childhood development with benefits that last into adulthood. Take the time now to promote learning through play, and we will have a new generation of creative thinkers who can solve the World’s problems and communicate their ideas effectively amongst one another. Sounds pretty great!
Laura Elizabeth Baukol, M.A. CCC-SLP