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  • Being Playful vs Playing with Toys…What’s the Difference?(current)

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?Woman Laughing With Toddler

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 elseAsk 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?

18 comments on “Being Playful vs Playing with Toys…What’s the Difference?

  • Amy Cocorikis says:

    I absolutely love this article!! I even envision that there may be some practictioners that could share this article with some families as a way of opening up the conversation over change in practice! I also imagine that some families might feel relieved to see in print that their day to day reality does look very different from a home visit that centers around toy play – and it’s our job as early interventionists to help parents make the most out of those everyday moments! Thanks for this great resource!

    • I’m glad you like this one, Amy! What a fantastic idea to share this article with families. I think most families are open to trying new things, and switching from toy play to being playful in many routines is something that could take a change of thinking for both the parent and provider. Being playful can open up a world of opportunities for everyone – and the child will love it too!

  • Cori says:

    I love this idea of playfulness vs “playing.” I think if early interventionists continually think about this concept, families might feel less guilty if they didn’t “do it” like their EI provider. AND..perhaps, there would be less of a thought that parents aren’t “following through.”

    • Absolutely! Being playful can be so much more rewarding than trying to coax a child to play with a particular toy and yes, can help reinforce the focus of EI being on parent-child interactions. I really can be a shift in thinking about what we do as early interventionists.

  • Shannon says:

    I LOVE this new idea of playfulness!!! So much more family friendly and fits better with the philosophy of EI. This would make it easier for providers to get rid of the toy bag and I agree with cori, help parents feel less guilty about needing to ‘buy’ that toy a provider may bring in the home.

    • I think so too, Shannon – teaching caregivers to be playful whenever they can be (whether they have a toy or not) is a skill they take with them wherever they go. It’s the same for us early interventionists too!

  • Gena says:

    What a great read! I often find myself wondering what the family would be doing if it weren’t for my visit. I think it may be beneficial to have visits where you say “hey I’m coming, but don’t change a thing about your day!” That way, you can observe, coach, and help them through their regular routines by DOING instead of just talking about it.

    • Exactly! There’s a HUGE difference between joining a routine and talking about it. I like your idea of giving the family some warning that you’d like to join them – especially if your visits have used a different format in the past. It’s also a good idea to explain why you want to try something new. How would you explain this shift in service delivery to a family?

  • Marie says:

    Anita Bundy, an OT, has done extensive work on playfulness over the last 20 years. She talks about playfulness as ‘attitude’ rather than specific behaviors and actually has a Test of Playfulness. This construct is one of the biggest differences I have seen between master clinicians and those that struggle with intervention and progress. As clinicians we are asking children and families to trust us, to take risks and continually progress developmentally — with children that needs to occur throughout their daily lives with a lot of repetition and generalization across contexts. In order for that to happen it must be intrinsically motivated and what makes children intrinsically motivated is the fact that they are having fun — playfulness is the key to that. A good introduction of Anita’s playfulness construct can be found at: http://ajot.aotapress.net/content/54/1/73.short

    • Thanks for pointing us to a great resource, Marie. I completely agree that playfulness is an “attitude” and I’d love to see the Test of Playfulness you mention. Does Anita Bundy talk about how to teach playfulness to families too?

  • Jennifer Sievers, MEd. ECSE says:

    I think that this has truly been one of the biggest challenges and also changes that I have encountered in EI since I graduated college and started working in the field. When I first graduated “toy bags” were accepted, commonly used, and well – you didn’t really think twice about bringing them. It has been a big change and while I will admit that I still bring toys on visits occasionally, I don’t ever bring toys that I don’t leave at the house (and we have a growing donation room, so often these toys are taken for the family to keep), and this is only occasionally! One of my biggest challenges as an educator, and I think it is for most providers, is to get up off of the floor, playing with toys, and to truly join the family in what they would usually be doing. One piece of advice that I have is that I have found this to be easier to do with new families that I am just starting with – I now see each new family as an opportunity to be a better provider, both in terms of truly making interventions fit into their routines (not just playing on the floor) and truly making it an interactive session where I sit back and guide the family more than being hands on. It’s easier to establish this from the beginning, when families don’t already have any preconceived notions of what an “EI visit” looks like. Again – it is always a process but that’s my advice!

    • I think you aren’t alone there, Jennifer. It was the same with me when I started. We brought toy bags and played because that was just what we did. I remember sitting in living rooms that looked remarkably like Toys ‘R Us and yet we still played with what I brought. Even back then it felt like I was missing something. I love the way the field is evolving. Moving from playing on the floor to coaching during family routines is a learning process, both for providers and families. In case it’s helpful, here’s a link to a poster session our team did at DEC last year. We have lots of info and strategies to help you with this process.

      Get Up Off the Floor! Implementing Early Intervention Where Everyday Magic Happens

  • Ana says:

    I’m curious, I believe this will my whole heart, but face such opposition from providers that don’t want to change what they have been doing.

    • Ana – you are not alone! Lots of folks cling to toy play because that’s just how we’ve always done EI and we all believe in the importance of play. In fact, we see it in the research too, that toy play is still the most common context for providing EI. One of the important things to remember is that toy play is just one family routine, so if we branch out and use other routines as well, we get more bang for our buck with intervention. Is the opposition you hear a resistance to not using toys, not taking toys into the home, or is it because your providers aren’t sure what to do other than play with toys? I’d love to know more about what you think. 🙂


    This is great and this practice is long overdue. Thanks for your article and ongoing support

  • Silvia Goodman-Lee says:

    It really makes therapy more meaningful when the parent, the child and the therapist are looking for ways to be playful in a familiar context. It makes us all be focused on what is really important; which is the interaction and enjoyment of learning. Playfulness reduces the level of anxiety in all participants. It increases happiness while promoting learning. When we play with toys we could become somewhat dependent on them in order to drive interactions. Toys could become the center of attention instead of the person, the feelings and the meaning of the interaction.

    • So well-said, Silvia! I completely agree about playfulness being more meaningful and helping us keep our focus where it should be, as you said, on the “person, the feelings, and the meaning of the interaction.” Thanks for joining the discussion!


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