Pick a visit, any visit. Walk in the door and…what are you most likely to see? What’s the most common activity to occur on a visit?
Well, the title of this post surely gave it away, but you are very likely to see the provider and child playing with toys. Why? Why do we still find ourselves sitting on the floor, playing with toys, when there are so many other things to do?
The Play Disconnect
Research in early intervention consistently finds that providers most often provide support in the context of toy play. Research also tells us that intervention is most effective when provided by families in the context of everyday activities and routines. The disconnect here is this: families don’t spend nearly as much time playing with their children with toys as we think they do. This is not “bad” or “wrong,” it just “is.” Play with toys happens much less frequently than interactions during diaper changes, feeding, running errands, and all the other activities of everyday family life. When researchers talked with and observed families of young children with disabilities and delays, they found that the most common contexts for play were: 1) independent play where the child was playing by herself within view of the parent, and 2) playful interactions during daily routines like diaper changes.
So why do we still insist on playing with toys?
I think we still work in the context of toy play because it is predictable, we’re used to working on specific skills, and because it’s fun! Play is absolutely a vital context for learning and development. There is nothing wrong with supporting development in the context of toy play, but if we want to help families know how to support their child’s development between visits, and we know that families aren’t playing with toys all the time, then we need to think more broadly. Thinking in terms of “playful interactions” and helping families be playful and engaging in whatever activity they are doing is a great way to build successful intervention!
Here are 5 strategies to help you focus more on playfulness (and maybe a little less on playing with Fisher Price!):
Emphasize the interaction, not the toy – When a child and parent are able to interact successfully, meaning they read and respond to each other’s cues in a mutually enjoyable way, then their interaction can provide a wonderful context for supporting development and participation. This can happen with most any activity. Help parents learn how to be responsive and playful by coaching them through playful interactions, videotaping them and watching it together, pointing out when it comes naturally, and modeling when needed.
Talk about being playful – Talk about how important it is, what it looks like, and what to expect from the child. Explain how much children learn from an engaged, responsive adult.
Ask the parent if you can do something else – Ask what they would be doing if you weren’t there, then do that. Be creative, even if it means joining lunchtime or helping to fold laundry. Make it a playful fun time and look for the learning opportunities.
Teach turn-taking – Turn-taking is a core activity for learning. It’s how children learn communication, social interaction, and often what motivates them to move about. Introduce turn-taking outside of toy play, like during snacktime (help the parent teach the child the “ca” sound to get another cracker as his turn) or dressing (encourage the parent to say “where’s your arm?” then “I found your arm!” when the child pushes his arm through his sleeve – a playful way to teach dressing, body awareness, object permanence, and expressive and receptive communication).
Leave the toy bag (PDF, New Window) at the office – Since play can happen anywhere with anything, leave your toys in the office and join the family in an activity that they choose. It might be playing with their toys, but at least it is something familiar to them that they can try between visits because they will know what to do with their things when you aren’t there.
What’s your favorite strategy for teaching playfulness? What challenges have you faced with encouraging playful interactions?