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Play and Development: Occupational Therapy Tips


Play has varying definitions but at its root play should be intrinsically motivated, result in joy, and have no extrinsic goals. It may seem obvious but children learn best when it is done through play. Play is also vital for building relationships, fostering independence, skill development, social-emotional skills, encouraging creativity and problem-solving skills. Despite the growing academic standards for children, play remains a vital part of learning for children and should remain to be the single most important way children learn. 

If you have ever witnessed an occupational therapy session, from an outsider's point of view it might look like we are “just” playing with your child. From the therapist’s point of view they are probably thinking about task analysis, regulation, grading the activity, how to provide support to match their skill level, how to incorporate new skills, what they can be doing at home to support their development, and many many other things. If you are at home with your child trying to teach them a new skill such as tying their shoes, getting dressed, or writing their name, try to think of how you can incorporate components of those skills into play.

Ways to build more play into their day

  • Open-ended play toys: Toys that can be played with in multiple ways and have no end are the best toys to promote creativity, problem solving, and independence. Toys that are more open-ended include: 

  • Blocks

  • Balls 

  • Dolls

  • Train sets

  • Pretend play sets 

  • Loose parts 

  • Arts and crafts: offering a variety of arts and crafts activities can foster creativity, engage their sensory systems, build social-emotional skills, and so much more. Even if arts and crafts aren’t your jam or you have a hard time being creative yourself, try to reduce the pressure by having no set goal in mind. Gather some random materials and see what they can come up with. If you want to create something specific, have a visual for them to see if they can replicate it. Either way you are encouraging them to be creative. Below is a list of materials you can use for arts and crafts 

  • Recyclables - paper towel rolls, cardboard, paper cups, paper plates, food containers 

  • String, ribbon, rope, twine

  • Masking tape, painters tape, washi tape

  • Paint, watercolors, brushes

  • Crayons, markers, pencils

  • Glue, clear glue, glitter glue

  • Feathers, pom poms, pipe cleaners 

  • Stickers

  • Foam paper, tissue paper, colored paper

  • Go outside: the outdoors is nature’s sensory bin. No matter the weather (as long as it’s safe) try to get outside to play every day! The fresh air, sun, and breeze will naturally provide a calming effect for you and your child. Being outside also fosters natural play and creativity. Below are ideas of things to do outside 

  • Treasure hunt walk: grab a bucket and collect leaves, sticks, rocks, mulch, etc

  • Chalk: draw on the sidewalk, make an obstacle course

  • Playgrounds 

  • Water play

  • Hike a trail 

  • Climb trees 

“The benefits of play are extensive and well documented and include improvements in executive functioning, language, early math skills (numerosity and spatial concepts), social development, peer relations, physical development and health” (Yogman, 2018)

The benefits of play are numerous. There are many different types of play and if you are wanting to learn more about play I encourage you to read the article linked below. If you have any questions about your child’s development and curious about ways to support your child you can set up a call with me by emailing subject line: consult call 

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