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What is Play and Why Is It Important?

Play can be defined as “any spontaneous or organized activity that provides enjoyment, entertainment, amusement, or diversion” (Parham and Fazio, 2008, p. 448). Play is one of children’s major jobs—how they occupy their free time and learn. It’s an important activity for your child because play helps to facilitate positive growth and development. Physical health, social and emotional well-being, and positive mental health are also promoted through play. When a child plays, he or she experiences new ways to solve problems and learn skills needed to become a healthy adult. Research has shown that children who participate in play frequently grow quickly, experience higher achievement in school, and develop healthy habits for adulthood. A study of 11,000 third graders found those who participated in more than 15 minutes of recess per day behaved better in the classroom and were more likely to learn than their peers who had little to no recess opportunities. (Barros, Silver, & Stein, 2009). Using daily routines and activities during the day, encouraging the happiness and joy that can be experienced through play, and simply allowing children to be playful can enhance their health and well-being.

How can families develop play skills to promote health and well-being?
Early Childhood
Play teaches infants, toddlers, and preschoolers about their bodies and about the effects of their actions on the world around them. Play promotes growth and development through movement and exploration. Family members are a child’s first playmates.

· During their first few months, babies enjoy colorful mobiles, rattles, vocal play such as talking and singing, and games involving moving their arms and legs. Encourage your baby to participate while lying on his or her back, belly, side, or while supported on your lap.
· As babies learn to reach, grasp, and sit on their own, they will enjoy mirror play, balls, and toys that involve squeezing, stacking, and pulling apart. Babies also enjoy interactive games like peek-a-boo, music, and books. Water play with toys that float and plastic letters to stick on tile walls provides bath time fun.
· Since babies enjoy and learn through putting toys in their mouths, make sure they play with toys that are age specific and are made without small parts.
· As children learn to walk and run, they enjoy climbing, chasing, hide-n-seek, and pull toys.
· Toddlers develop hand skills by dropping shape toys into slots and scribbling with crayons. They also enjoy books and toys that make sounds. They begin to imitate by using, for example, a toy telephone or hammer.
· Imitation and pretend play increases during the preschool years, through use of dress-up, puppets, and toy cars and trains. Preschoolers enjoy construction games such as building toys and puzzles, which further develop their coordination skills. Playground time and riding toys encourage large muscle movement. Playing with materials with different textures such as finger paints and sand allow sensory introduction. Games during the preschool years teach turn-taking and getting along with others. These activities also help children develop language skills.
Elementary school
The elementary school years are an important time for learning to play by rules and participating in cooperative activities such as sports teams. Motor skills are being fine tuned, and there is an increased interest in developing hobbies. Play often serves as a way of developing friendships and expressing one’s unique personality. Finding a balance between formal play (e.g., participating on a sports team) and informal play (e.g., participating on the playground) allows for play time to be both active and creative.

Try these ideas to build skills and expression:
· Participate in board games and sports activities with your child; this helps your child to learn to follow rules.
· Have various craft materials available to spark creativity and interest.
· Offer options for extracurricular activities that include both physical and creative exploration (e.g., sports teams or performing arts experiences).
· Provide play options that include both structured and less structured choices (e.g., being on a school team or playing soccer in the yard with neighborhood friends).
· Encourage your school to support recess as a necessary part of every child’s day. This is a good time for physical movement that can promote learning and positive behavior.
· Like recess, active play before homework time can prepare your child for learning.
· Don’t forget to keep play activities fun! If you lose that element, it is no longer play.
Middle School
The early teen years mark a time of exploring social relationships. This is a teens’ form of play. Teens tend to like group activities, such as spending time with friends, listening to music, talking, and going to the mall. This time with friends allows them to improve social, movement, and mental skills; gain an understanding of themselves as individuals; and practice new skills in different environments without continuous parental supervision. These opportunities can promote a sense of wellbeing. Young and older teens also enjoy after-school activities, such as clubs (drama, music, art, athletics) and work (volunteer and paid).

· Encourage your child to join school and community-based clubs and after-school activities.
· Participate in leisure activities with your teen, such as table tennis or biking, to help strengthen family ties and offer opportunities to build communication.
· Ask questions about your child’s preferences in movies or music to indicate your interest and to spark conversation.
· Consider your own habits and routines of leisure and whether they include physical activities and model a balanced lifestyle of work and play. You are a role model for your teen.
High School and Beyond
During the high school years, play promotes cooperation and opportunities for teamwork. Through play, older teens are able to get to know themselves better and pinpoint their interests and their strengths. As school and social pressures increase at the high school level and beyond, leisure activities can reduce stress and offer a sense of belonging and a chance to develop their goals.

· Encourage your teen to balance homework with leisure time to promote a healthy lifestyle that addresses both mental and physical wellness.
· Encourage limited screen time (TV, computers, and iPod/iPhones) and increased physical activity to help prevent or reduce problems that are associated with obesity and depression.
· Find a good fit between the demands of the leisure activity and the skills and interests of your teen. For example, depending on your child’s personality, physical abilities, and interests, he or she may prefer more physically demanding activities like swimming, whereas other children may prefer debate or drama clubs that challenge verbal and other cognitive skills.
· For all age groups, offer healthy, balanced meals as the fuel needed for physical activity.
· To prevent injury for all age groups, be mindful about the use and proper maintenance of appropriate safety equipment, such as helmets for biking. Know the signs of concussions. Encourage stretching before and after vigorous exercise.
· Low-cost, easily accessible leisure pursuits such as chess or basketball offer lifelong participation through community leagues and recreational centers.
Play shouldn’t stop in childhood. It continues to help build coordination and strength as well as creativity and social skills in all ages. Play also helps to develop emotional well-being and increases a child’s ability to explore, problem solve, and create.

What can parents do early on?
· Encourage sensory rich play by using balls, sand and water toys, slides, swings, finger paints, and magnets. During sensory play, children use their senses to incorporate smell, touch, sound, vision, and movement.
· Encourage manipulative play, such as using play dough, LEGOs, and board games. Toys such as puzzles, pegboards, beads, and lacing cards help improve the child’s eye–hand coordination and dexterity
· Promote imaginative or pretend play with things like dolls and stuffed animals, toy furniture, puppets, and telephones. Pretend play encourages creativity and role playing and provides an opportunity to rehearse social skills.
· Choose toys that are appropriate to the child’s age and/or maturity level. They do not have to be expensive or complicated to be beneficial. Common objects, such as pots and pans, empty boxes, spools of thread, shoelaces, and wooden spoons are readily accessible and encourage children to use their imagination.
What can occupational therapists do?
· Help modify the environment or adapt toys to provide optimal sensory input without overwhelming the child.
· Recommend toys and play activities that provide the right amount of challenge for the child, so he or she learns while having fun. The occupational therapy practitioner can also recommend ways to build on the child’s strengths and abilities.
· Offer play opportunities that encourage turn taking and problem solving. Consider family routines and priorities when recommending play strategies. Observe, identify, and develop play strategies that promote a healthy lifestyle and relationships.
References

1. Barros, R. M., Silver, E. J., & Stein, R. E. K. (2009). School recess and group classroom behavior. Pediatrics, 123, 431–436. Retrieved March 22, 2011, from http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/cgi/content/abstract/123/2/431

2. Parham, L. D., & Fazio, L. (2008). Play in occupational therapy for children (2nd ed.) St. Louis, MO: Elsevier.

Copyright © 2011 by the American Occupational Therapy Association. This material may be copied and distributed for personal or educational uses without written consent. For all other uses, contact copyright@aota.org.