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Come Learn More About Play!
Profectum's 5th Annual NY Conference
Sunday - October 18th, 2015


5th Annual New York Conference

Sunday, October 18th


Capturing the Power and Potential of Play, Movement and
Creativity:  The DIR Model Sets the Stage

The Wait is Over

Registration is Open for the 5th Annual New York Conference!

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Take advantage of Early Bird rates!

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 Let’s Play!! Supporting Play and Playful Interactions

Building Bridges Magazine - 24 September 2015

By Lynn Abelson, MA, CCC-SLP, OTR/L
and Susan Smith-Foley, MPA, OTR/L

Can you recall cherished play activities from your childhood? Perhaps it was building sand castles on the beach with endless trips back-and-forth to the water’s edge to fill pail after pail with water, raking leaves and then jumping joyfully into the pile, dressing dolls for fashion shows, building ferris wheels with Tinkertoys® or spacecraft with Lego®. But what happens when play does not come so easily to the children we love and care for? Before we go any further let’s first explore why play is so important.


Play is so important that the American Academy of Pediatrics published guidelines in 2007 regarding play in American children. It is described as essential to development because it contributes to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children and youth while providing opportunities for parents to engage fully with their children (Ginsburg, 2007). Play ushers the child into the world of symbolic thinking where symbols and images can represent reality (Wieder & Greenspan, 2003). In 2008 the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA) also published a statement on the importance of play and the role of occupational therapists in supporting play throughout the lifespan. That’s right, adults need to play too!


As parents it is important to recognize that something as seemingly simple as playing is actually quite complex. Play starts in infancy with changes in facial expressions, simple motor actions, vocalizations that are initiated by the child and then joyfully joined by the caregiver(s). A back-and-forth synchrony of interactions unfolds, leading gradually to more elaborate sensory motor actions beyond the child’s body. Toys and objects are explored, manipulated, and combined and the child begins to represent familiar caregiver routines, such as feeding a baby, cooking dinner, or going to work. More complex symbolic (pretend) play, emotional range, and imaginary thinking typically develop from here. Adult co-regulation may be needed to prepare an infant or child to be ready to play. This may take the form of the caregiver providing firm touch pressure or using a soft, soothing voice, for example. We know as adults that virtually nothing gets accomplished if we are upset, over stimulated, fatigued, or cranky.


The first step in optimizing playful interactions is to embrace the concept that play is the most important occupation of childhood and offers an ideal opportunity for parents to engage fully with their children. One challenge many families face is having little dispensable time to devote to play. A powerful solution is to wholeheartedly accept the idea that play and playful interactions need not be limited to scheduled play times and play dates. Playfulness is a state of mind that can be creatively integrated into all family activities (e.g., bathing, mealtime, cooking, car rides, food shopping, etc.). Joining a toddler splashing in the bathtub or squealing with delight when he squeezes a funny sounding tub toy, calling out every red car you see on the road during car rides with your child, or pretending to be cooks preparing a special meal replete with your child’s favorite dishes are all activities of daily living that have the potential to be rich and meaningful playful interactions.
Parents are often told that play takes away from real learning and that good parents actively build every skill and aptitude their child might need from the earliest ages (Ginsberg, 2007). Whether the skills sought by parents are therapeutic, educational, artistic, or athletic the unifying factor is that children are often left with little to no time to freely choose play that is under their control. It is critical that children across developmental abilities be supported and encouraged to explore their individual interests in their own chosen ways. Through play children have the opportunity to become intentional, creative, and to develop a sense that their choices make a difference.

How do we encourage this? Watch carefully, listen, and notice what your child is doing. This will be the key to understanding your child’s interests and joining in his play, and will facilitate rich, playful interactions. For example, you bring home multi-colored textured beanbags and are anticipating your child’s delight in touching them and perhaps even engaging in a color matching game with you. Instead, your child begins throwing the beanbags at you and laughing. Before you redirect the activity consider what your child is telling you, grab a bucket, catch the beanbags, and join the fun. This may be one way your child’s initiates and sustains a playful interaction with you. Let’s play!!

Lynn is an Associate Faculty member at Profectum Foundation and an Adjunct Professor at Montclair State University. She is a speech-language pathologist and DIR Program Manager at The Phoenix Center in NJ.
Susan is an Associate Faculty member at Profectum Foundation. She is the owner of Avon Occupational Therapy, Inc. in NJ. Susan has expertise in integrating the DIR model in school-based practice.
(The DIR Model was developed by Stanley Greenspan, MD and Serena Wieder, Ph.D)