Beyond Fun & Games: Pediatric Therapists Share Their Opinions on the Importance of Play

As parents, we encourage our children to play. 

After all, play is how children learn — we inherently understand this concept. 

However, as a speech-language pathologist, I look at play through a much different lens. 

Although I sometimes wish I could, I don’t ever “turn off” the speech-language pathologist part of my brain. 

I’m always being told by family and friends, “stop speech therapy-ing your children!” 

My response is always something similar: “I’m not! I’m modeling language and showing them how to create a play schema,” or “I’m preparing them for learning and letting them explore their environment. They throw a block off the table…exploration of gravity!” 

How cool is that? 

At South Shore Health, our Physical Therapy and Wellness program is staffed by pediatric physical therapists (PT), occupational therapists (OT), and speech-language pathologists (SLP).

We pediatric therapists like to think of ourselves as “The Professionals of Play!”

I once had a professor whose treatment philosophy boiled down to “if you’re doing it right, it will look like you’re playing.”

That’s our goal: teaching and helping children through play.

To illustrate this point, I asked some of our pediatric therapists what they saw when they looked at children playing.

Their answers say a lot about just how important play can be for childhood development.

Motor milestones: A PT’s perspective on play

A young baby sits with his mother in his nursery and plays with blocks.

“I see an opportunity to work on attainment of motor milestones: sitting and balance, sit and reach, proximal strength (nearer to the center of the body).”

“I also see an opportunity to work on trunk rotations with transitional movements: sit to prone (lying flat on belly), sit to quadruped (on hands and knees), and side sitting.” – Kathleen Clark, PT

Sensory experience: An OT’s perspective on play 

A happy baby covered in paint holds up his hands after finger painting

“I see a child getting messy with finger paint and enjoying this new sensory experience! This is a great activity to build fine motor skills and tactile awareness…specifically, for isolating different fingers for painting with, learning about opening/closing containers, and attempted tool use (paint brush).”

“Using your hands for a variety of sensory play activities will help develop them for later skills such as holding a crayon, a pencil, and scissors.” – Crystal Cote, OTR/L

Social skills and pretend play: The SLP perspective on play

A group of school-age children happily plays together on a playground jungle gym

“I see social skills at work on the playground. These kids will need to use their social problem solving skills to play within the group, and to make plans for what to do next on the playground.”

“They might be making up a brand new game to engage in cooperative play, or they could even be resolving a conflict. They need to be aware of the thoughts and feelings of their peers so that they can interact appropriately with each other.” – Jillian Watson, MA, CCC-SLP

A young Asian boy dressed as a doctor plays pretend by putting his stethoscope on a stuffed animal

“I see a child engaging in pretend play and acting out a schema that he has some knowledge about or is exploring a new concept through play.”

“As the toys used in this play schema have complicated names, the caregiver(s) can use this opportunity to label body parts during the ‘checkup.’ This can also be an opportunity for modeling some actions that may be seen within a doctor’s office such as: giving a shot or putting on bandages.”

“Engaging in pretend play with young children not only strengthens their understanding of that specific schema or concept, but it also works to develop turn taking, joint attention, flexibility in play, problem solving, and sharing.” – Lindsay Cagney, MS, CCC-SLP

Isn’t it interesting? When viewed through the eyes of a pediatric therapist, what looks like fun and games is actually crucial developmental milestones for your children.

With that in mind, I encourage you to sit with your child and play! 

Model language, provide opportunities for sensory play, or bring them outside and explore. 

Does your child have the language to label their toys? Yes? Great! Now model new language or two-word phrases. 

Give them directions. How many steps can they follow?

Learning can be so much fun! 

Put away the flashcards and musical toys – you don’t need them. Oftentimes, my children have more fun with the box than the actual toy. 

I’ve turned boxes in to race cars, houses and parking garages for the millions of toy cars lining my floors. 

My children morph from dinosaurs to superheroes to lions in a day. We talk about the places they go, the things they see, and what they eat as each character. 

It’s all wonderful, and by participating, you’re doing more than just creating memories with your child: you’re playing a key role in your child’s healthy development.

If you’re concerned about your child’s play or level of development, it’s best to speak to your child’s pediatrician.

In some cases, your pediatrician may recommend services with a pediatric physical therapist, occupational therapist, or speech-language pathologist.

If so, our team is here for you and your child, ready to take them on their next play-filled adventure.

Jaime Cascarano, MA, CCC-SLP is an outpatient speech-language pathologist at South Shore Health.

Learn more about Physical Therapy and Wellness and Pediatric Rehabilitation at South Shore Health.