Developing Play Skills

What is play?

‘Play’ is described as a fun, spontaneous, absorbing and personally motivating activity. It is categorized as the main ‘occupation’, or ‘activity’, for a child as this is where they do the majority of their learning and development, especially during the younger years.

Children who are playing will be covering the following categories:

  • Using themes in play (e.g. farm, doctor)
  • Sequences (e.g. having a longer story within a play game)
  • Replacing real life objects for something to use in play (e.g. a box can be used as a car)
  • Playing with others (e.g. playing with friends, family).
  • Role play (e.g. playing mums and dads).

Why is my child having trouble with playing?

When looking at our child’s skills, we will commonly be puzzled to why they are having so much trouble completing a task that we take for granted. The role of an occupational therapist is to break down the smaller steps that are required for your child to be successful in completing a skill such as play.

Play is actually really complicated and requires a huge number of smaller skills to be developed first. These skills include (but are not limited to):

  • Sharing
  • Imagination
  • Appropriate and effective body, hand and finger movements
  • Emotional regulation, to ensure children are friendly to one another
  • Turn taking
  • Communication skills

While children often learn and develop these skills during play, others may benefit from direct and specific teaching of each of the skills above.

Is there anything I can do at home to support?

Ways in which you at home can support your child to develop these skills include, but are not limited to:

Modelling play with your child – Playing games with your child with the above skills in mind will help you be a ‘model play mate’. This is important as children learn from others, especially parents and caregivers, and over time will learn these skills from you and use them in their own play games with friends at kindergarten or school. Children can learn behaviours from other children, and an opportunity for your child to interact with other children is during a Talking Matters group program: https://www.talkingmatters.com.au/about-us/group-programs/

Social stories - A second way children learn is through books and storytelling. This is one reason why all kindergartens and preschools have frequent story times for the children. Colourful books or videos of cartoon children learning to play and being friendly in play are of interest to most children, and they may learn how to change their play like ones they are exposed to in books and storytelling. Many social stories can be found on the Talking Matters website: https://www.talkingmatters.com.au/about-us/resources/social-stories/

Emotional Regulation – You can support your child to develop appropriate social skills by allowing your child to see you managing your feelings and social situations well. You can think aloud, identify and explain your feelings about a problem, then demonstrate a socially appropriate response. For example, “I am angry that I didn’t get to go first because I wanted to but I will patiently wait until it is my turn.” Resources to support managing feelings (e.g. feelings book) can be found on the Talking Matters website here: https://www.talkingmatters.com.au/about-us/resources/social-stories/

How can an occupational therapist support these skills?

It is common that families and teachers will identify concerns with specific skills such as play. Occupational therapists are trained to analyse your child’s current skills and difficulties to identify smaller goals your child will need to achieve as stepping stones towards achieving a larger goal, such as play. As every child is different, the skills that one child needs support in, is likely to be different to another child. Hence a thorough assessment is always the place to start. Supports for working towards successful play may include, but are not limited to:

  • Identifying if any of the above skills are lacking through an assessment process
  • Developing these skills through fun and creative activities
  • Supporting parents and caregivers to develop their child’s skills at home, school and the community
  • Using engaging games and activities to develop skills that assist your child with hand functions, such as hand strength, and being able to manipulate objects in their hand. This will assist in allowing them to play with all kinds of toys
  • Developing larger body movements like core strength and shoulder stability to help promote posture during play and to allow for your child to play other larger scale games

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