What is Play?

Before reading any further, I challenge you to come up with a simple definition of play. Harder than it seems!  For such a seemingly simple and universal concept, it is quite challenging to come up with a simple definition of “play”. In the field of occupational therapy, play is recognized as a child’s primary activity and occupation!!  Not only is it fun and engaging, it provides the context for growth and development.

Key Elements of Play and Playfulness  

  • ·         Motivation
    • o   Play is done for its own sake.  A playful child is actively engaged in play and is motivated by the experience of playing, not the promise of rewards
  • ·         Choices & control
    • o   Play involves child chosen activities that are inherently joyful and fun.  A playful child is most interested in the process (the doing) of play, not the product (the outcome)
  • ·         Imagination & pretending
    • o   Play is pleasurable, allows the suspension of reality, and facilitates discovery, mastery, creativity, and self-expression. A playful child tries new ways of doing things; shows curiosity; persists with challenges; and gets absorbed in the doing of play 

Benefits of Play:  Play is the BEST means to early learning and development for young children. Learning through play builds curiosity and creativity and contributes to the development of emotion, cognition, physical skills, social interactions, and language skills.

  • o   Emotional Benefits:  Positive, successful play experiences lead to the development of self-esteem and self-confidence.
  • o   Physical and Cognitive Skills:  Children learn how their bodies work, and gain knowledge about the world around them through play. They learn how to do things and how things work.
  • o   Social and Language Development: Through play children learn to problem solve, to share and to take turns. They learn to negotiate, to compromise and to get along with others.  They learn what is expected, what is appropriate, and how to build relationships with peers and with adults.
  • o   Cognition : Play stimulates emergent literacy, numeracy and inquiry skills. Early learning through play provides the foundation for success in school and throughout life.

Occupational therapists evaluate both play skills and playfulness in children to determine what interventions will promote these skills, enhancing overall function and development. Also, the skillful use of play is an ideal therapeutic tool that engages and motivates a child to be able to accept a challenge, and promote a positive sense of self while working on challenging skill areas.