Play is not just entertainment for children. Play is a child’s equivalent to work – it is their main occupation, and the task through which they begin to develop complex skills. These skills include social intelligence, use of language, fine and gross motor competency, emotional understanding, empathy, understanding of right and wrong, concentration, imagination, problem solving and so many more! Even the simplest of games have a wealth of learning opportunities.
For children, everything is a learning opportunity. Even kids who are too young to be educated begin to explore and learn from their surroundings. You might not give much thought to small games like peek-a-boo and building blocks, but simple games are a great way for infants and toddlers to begin to develop skills which they’ll use throughout their lives.
Picture a child playing with stuffed animals. The child gives each toy a name, and begins to create unique characteristics, goals and emotional responses for each individual. The characters have a range of relationships – a leader, a follower, a carer and a friend – who all interact with each other in a variety of ways. The toys come across imaginary problems, and have to create ways to solve the problem. If a specific tool isn’t available, the child has to imagine or create the tool. Motor competency is gained through the movement of the characters. If other children are involved, then skills like listening to others, sharing and negotiation begins to develop.
The benefits of play last throughout childhood, teenage years, adulthood and into older age. Skills can be built at any age, and play is a fun and dynamic way to broaden skills. For example, board games necessitate casual social engagement, negotiation, problem solving, memory, concentration, fine motor control, and emotional regulation.
Overall, play is the perfect way to engage children during a therapy session. Play therapy works by shaping play (an activity which is internally motivated, safe, fun and unpredictable) to target an area of deficit.
By using play as a therapeutic medium, therapists support children to develop targeted skills in a slow, natural progression. It is also engaging and enjoyable for the children, lessening the risk of disengagement. Here is a list of four common games, and the developmental areas targeted by each game:
If you see your therapist playing a game, and you don’t understand why, please feel free to ask your clinician for their reasoning at any time.