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Power of Play

Power of Play
Amy Rossano, MA, OTR/L
November 7, 2018

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What is Play?

What is play?

  • Play is freely chosen, intrinsically motivated and personally directed.
  • Play is activity by children that is guided more by imagination than by fixed rules.
  • Play is the spontaneous activity of children.
  • Young children learn best through play that is relevant and meaningful to their life!

Play is freely chosen, intrinsically motivated, and personally directed. Play is activity by children that is guided more by imagination than by fixed rules. Play is a spontaneous activity of children. Young children learn best through play that is relevant and meaningful to their life. When you interact with young ones, you take a look at how they are playing, who they are playing with, what are they playing with, and what motivates them. The opposite of play is work.

Societal Myths

Common societal myths about learning and play include:

  • Learning must be work.
  • Learning occurs during adult-directed activities.
  • Play is frivolous, purposeless activity.
  • Play is what children do when they aren’t learning.
  • Play skills come naturally to children.
  • Children benefit most from educational toys.
  • High-tech toys are important for young children.
  • Academics should be emphasized as early as possible.

These are some of the myths that have been found during research about learning and play.

Benefits of Play

Now, let's talk about the benefits of play.

  • It is very important to understand and respect the importance of play in a young child’s development and be able to convey this information to families and caregivers.
  • Many adults view play as trivial, simple, meaningless behavior that is used only to busy children so grown-up activities can occur (eg. cook dinner, clean, work on the computer, laundry, etc.).
  • The research challenges adults to “recognize play for what it is- a serious behavior that has a powerful influence on learning.” – Isenberg & Quisenberry, 1988

It is very important to understand and respect the importance of play in a young child's development and be able to convey this information to families and caregivers, or whomever you are working with, even if it is in a school environment. Many adults view play as trivial, simple, and meaningless behavior that is used only to busy children so grown-up activities can occur. For example, play is encouraged if a parent or a babysitter is trying to cook dinner, clean, work on the computer, or complete laundry. The research challenges adults to, "Recognize play for what it is, a serious behavior that has a powerful influence on learning" (Isenberg & Quisenberry, 1988).

  • Play is essential for healthy brain development.
  • Play sparks creativity and curiosity.
  • Play is critical for expanding cognitive, language, social-emotional, and motor skills.
  • Play is relevant and meaningful to the child.
  • Play facilitates productive and appropriate social interaction with peers and adults.
  • Play experiences provide learning opportunities.
  • Play helps children gain a better understanding of the world around them.
  • Through play, children learn how to learn.
  • Play enhances problem-solving skills.
  • Play is intrinsically motivating.
  • Play enhances a child’s ability to concentrate.

Play is essential for healthy brain development as it sparks creativity and curiosity. Play is critical for expanding cognitive, language, social-emotional, and motor skills. Play is relevant and meaningful to the child. Play facilitates productive and appropriate social interaction with peers and adults, and play experiences provide learning opportunities. Play helps children gain a better understanding of the world around them. Through play, children learn how to learn and solve problems. Play is intrinsically motivating. Finally, play enhances a child's ability to concentrate.

  • Play helps children learn to deal with frustration.
  • Play fosters spontaneity and independence.
  • Through play, children discover, interact, absorb, experience, create, explore, and learn.
  • Play allows young children the opportunity to practice new skills.
  • Play provides children with opportunities to make choices.
  • Play provides sensory rich experiences.
  • Play fosters self-esteem.
  • Play is fun.

Play helps children learn to deal with frustration, as we know. Play fosters spontaneity and independence. Through play, children discover, interact, absorb, experience, create, explore and learn. Play allows young children the opportunity to practice new skills. Play provides children with opportunities to make choices. Play provides sensory-rich experiences and fosters self-esteem. Finally, play is fun. And as I continue along, I would like to talk about neuroscience and play and how these come together.

Neuroscience and Play

What are the connections between brain development and play during the early years?

  • All healthy young mammals play
  • The complexity of play quickly increases as neurons hardwire connections at a rapid rate.
  • The early games and frivolity equip young children for the skills they will need later in life.
  • Play is essential for healthy development (Joe Frost, 1998)

All healthy young mammals play. And, the complexity of play quickly increases as neurons hard wire connections at a rapid rate. The early games and frivolity equip young children for the skills they will need later in life. And number four, play is essential for healthy development.

A direct quote from Piaget (1972) is that "Play can serve many purposes, and since children learn more effectively through activity rather than direct instruction, play provides an excellent vehicle for learning.

Types of Play

Let's now discuss the types of play, which is one of the outcomes I had mentioned in the beginning.

  • Active play vs. Passive entertainment
  • Child-directed play vs. Adult-directed play
  • Free play vs. Structured play
  • Object play vs. Social play

Active Play Versus Passive Entertainment

When a child is actively engaged in an activity, he is integrating his senses. The child is seeing, touching, hearing, smelling, tasting, and getting proprioceptive and/or vestibular input through their play. During passive entertainment, the child just observes as something interesting happens. Some examples are:

  • In active play, a child connects the track and then pushes toy trains around it.
  • In passive entertainment, a child watches a battery operated train go around the track.
  • In active play, a child learns to propel self on a tricycle or other ride-on toy.
  • In passive entertainment, a child rides on a battery powered ride-on toy (Power Wheels).

Child-directed Play Versus Adult-directed Play

Child-directed means following the child's lead by playing with things of interest to the child. Adult-directed means that the activity has been planned by the adult, and it's initiated by the adult and the ending point is determined by the adult. This often looks more like direct instruction, which is the polar opposite of free play. 

"Child-directed activities are usually relevant and authentic for children. If children introduce and remain engaged in an activity, it is likely that they are motivated to do so because the activity is relevant, meaningful, and reinforcing to them. Furthermore, when children are motivated and interested in a given activity, maintaining involvement does not require the use of primary or artificial rewards." 

Pretti-Frontczak & Bricker, 2004

Free Play Versus Structured Play

And this is a direct quote from 2004. Okay, to continue, let's talk about now free play versus structured play. Free play is child-directed with no direction or constraints placed by adults. It is beneficial to assess a young child's play skills during free play, making note of their ability to initiate play, the interest or even lack of a variety of toys, appropriate play with toys, attention and time on task, problem-solving skills, and desire to share toys with caregivers or others.

Free play versus structured play, some more examples, structured play is referring to either adult-guided play or adult-directed play.

  • Ability to initiate play
  • Interest (or lack of) in a wide variety of toys
  • Appropriate play with toys
  • Attention and time on task
  • Problem-solving skills
  • Desire to share toys with caregivers

While neurotypical children learn through free play, children with special needs often require more structure and guidance. Many children have limited play skills. Some children need special support in order to reap the benefits of learning through play. It is through structured play time that we can facilitate development. We coach teachers and educators about how to provide support during play time.

Object Play Versus Social Play

Object play refers to how children play with toys or objects. Social play refers to how children play with other people. There are six stages of object play.

Object Play/Stage 1: Random and exploratory play.

  • This emerges soon after birth as babies reach and grasp- first for familiar people, then objects and toys.
  • Babies engage in this type of play using their senses while discovering and exploring the physical environment around them.
  • Involves repetitive motor movements: mouthing, shaking, banging, or batting at toys.
  • Activity is done for the physical sensation it creates.

Object Play/Stage 2: Cause and effect play.

  • Emerges around age 9 months/or when a child sits independently
  • Activity is done because the child has discovered he can control the outcome through his actions
  • A child plays purposefully with objects in an intended repetitive manner- then repeats the action because he remembers the pattern. It is predictable.
  • A child learns that he/she can manipulate his/her world.
  • Playing with cause and effect toys gives young children the feeling of control and allows children to predict and anticipate what will happen next.

Object Play/Stage 3: Purposeful/functional play.

  • Emerges around ages 15-18 months
  • A child uses objects the way they are intended to be used. Examples are brushing hair with a brush, pushes cars, rolls ball, and stacks blocks.
  • A child also demonstrates an understanding of related objects. Examples are driving a train on a track, putting a doll in a baby crib, plays with toy food at the toy kitchen set, and throws only balls in the basketball hoop. 
  • During later Functional Play, the child will be able to respond appropriately to directives. (Example: “show me what you wear on your feet” (child gets the shoe), “what do we sleep on?” (child points to a picture of a bed in a book)

Object Play/Stage 4: Representation/symbolic play.

  • Emerges around age 3
  • A child begins to use symbolism in play. This is the beginning of pretend play.
  • Symbolic Play has greater cognitive demands than functional play with real objects.
  • Symbolic play is engaging in pretend activities out of context which means the child must rely on past experiences and memories.

Object Play/Stage 5: Constructive play.

  • Emerges around age 4
  • Child manipulates objects for the purpose of constructing or creating something specific.
  • Facilitates gross and fine motor skill development.
  • Examples: creating with play-dough, wooden blocks, sidewalk chalk, Lego’s, etc.

Object Play/Stage 6: Imaginative/themed play.

  • Emerges around age 4-5
  • Play is based on past events and typically involves sequencing of steps
  • Child pretends to be someone or do something- takes on different roles
  • Examples: doctor kits, play restaurant, dress up clothes, play store

Social play also has some stages.

Social Play/Stage 1: Play with adults.

  • Often times, young children choose to interact or play with adults instead of by themselves or with peers
  • We gain valuable information observing a child playing with his parents/caregivers
  • We need to be aware of what kind of play is occurring Is it child-directed, adult-guided or is it adult-directed?
  • It is our job to coach families about the importance of child-directed play

Social Play/Stage 2: Solitary/independent play skills.

  • Solitary Play is when the child is able to entertain himself/herself
  • A child possesses some independent play skills
  • A child is able to initiate play without direction from an adult
  • All children need to be able to entertain themselves for at least short periods of time

Social Play/Stage 3: Spectator play.

  • A child watches as other children play
  • Does not join in or interact with peers
  • A child shows interest in what peers are doing
  • Proceeds parallel play

Social Play/Stage 4: Parallel play skills.

  • Child plays near another child/children but is not interactive- this indicates that children can co-exist
  • Most 2-year-olds have parallel play skills
  • It is important to note if the child is interested in what other children are doing
  • When problems with sharing emerge, it is the beginning of associative play!

Social Play/Stage 5: Associative play skills.

  • Children are engaged in one activity with some interaction, but each child ultimately does his own thing
  • There is no formal organization, group direction, group interaction or definite goal
  • Associative play skills signify the emergence of social interaction skills and this takes time!
  • Proximity leads to interaction: think about this when setting up the environment in the classroom (we structure the environment)

Social Play/Stage 6: Cooperative play skills.

  • Children work together toward some common outcome or goal
  • This means they are communicating with each other and planning the steps necessary to reach their intended goal
  • This is the beginning of compromise and conflict resolution

Toys

Here are the top criteria for choosing a good toy.

  1. Look for toys that encourage active play instead of passive entertainment
  2. Choose simple toys that can be used in a variety of ways
  3. Select toys that are safe and durable
  4. Select toys that are interesting to your child, but expose him/her to new toys as well
  5. Choose toys that can be easily manipulated
  6. Look for toys that allow the child to learn naturally through exploration and encourage problem-solving
  7. Select toys that spark the child’s imagination
  8. Choose toys that are interesting to the adult too so that cross generational play can be fostered

Play for Healthy Development

Play is essential for healthy development. During the first years of life, it is playful activity and not direct instruction that makes a positive difference in brain development. This was recorded by Nash in 1997. Play is the most natural way for children to learn. Even children with special needs should be developing their skills through play-based activities. Skills should not be taught using therapeutic tasks but rather during functional activities that naturally occur during the day. Identify each child's top five motivators and use them to create a reason for the child to engage with others. Follow the child's lead, and he or she will be more responsive. We strive to build a connection with the child before we begin placing demands on him or her in therapy. And successful play is about the relationship. During play, it is never about the toy, and always about the relationship that is fostered during the play exchange. Based on my own experience as an OT, I wanted to emphasize to let the child lead. See what motivates and interests them. See how much you can get out of that interaction. And again, successful play is about the relationship. You are trying to develop and foster a relationship with the child, the family, and then go from there. 

What Happens During a Play Exchange?

  • Adult recognizes and acknowledges the interest of the child
  • Adult follows the child’s lead
  • Adult forms an emotional connection with the child
  • Adult builds on the child’s interests to enhance development
  • The relationship comes first, then enhance development. The relationship building with the child and family is so important!

The relationship building with the child and the family is so important. And again, with this slide, when you're looking at what is the child interested in, what motivates them, think about it, it could be anything. It could be something related to art or music or something they saw in a book, or anything, and then you build on that. You build on what their interests are, what motivates them, and that would absolutely enhance that development.

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amy rossano

Amy Rossano, MA, OTR/L

Amy Rossano is an Occupational Therapist and has been in practice for almost 23 years. She received her master’s degree from NYU in 1996. Amy has been working in various school settings, clinics, and early intervention in NJ. Amy is married and has two teenage sons.



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