The Importance of Play

Anna Baker M.A., OTR/L BCP SIPT
Anna Baker M.A., OTR/L BCP SIPT

LKS & Associates
Occupational Therapist

What is play? Play can be shaking a rattle for a 4-month-old, drawing on a chalkboard for a 3-year-old, or playing a board game for a 7-year-old. The characteristics of play include “voluntary,” “intrinsically motivated,” and “fun” 1. At the core of the motivation for play is the ability to be playful or to have “the disposition to play,” which is also shown to correspond with “adaptability and coping” 2

How Play is Used in Therapy Sessions

Occupational therapists, speech therapists, and physical therapists may all use play as a modality to create positive changes in various areas of development. Play can be used to create a bridge to complete important sensory, motor, language, and/or social milestones. Motor play for throwing a ball toward a target develops important eye-hand skills and body awareness that is foundational to repositioning the head in space to look at a classroom board and copy a sentence onto lined handwriting paper. Social play for imitating others creates foundational skills for playing cooperatively at preschool playtime. 

How can caregivers encourage play in a child? 

First, a caregiver must understand the child’s developmental level, and then the caregiver can create an activity that provides a motivating challenge. Below is a description of typical ages and play stages that may guide activities for your child. During the activity, read the child’s cues to create a challenge appropriate for the child’s level. If a child is upset during the activity, it’s definitely not “play.”  An adult may need to provide some assistance to help the child maintain interest and keep the child engaged.  Always provide supervision during activities to ensure safety and monitor the child’s interest to make changes to the activity if needed. 

Exploratory Play

For the ages of birth to 2 years, a child generally engages in exploratory play where objects or people in the environment are explored for sensory characteristics 3. Sensory characteristics can include how the objects in play feel, sound, look or move. It’s common at this age for a child to pull out all the pots and pans from a cabinet and bang them on the floor. Though this may seem like a giant mess to an adult, the child is learning about so many things: spatial relationships between the placement of the pans and the self, the auditory properties of the pans contacting the floor, the types of motoric grasp patterns to hold and stack the pots or pans, and visual-motor skills for stacking the pans. These are important foundational skills for later academic abilities in math and reading.  It’s also why so much close supervision is needed at this age because you never know what the child will do with an object!  

Examples of toys that can be used for exploratory play include: 

● Rattles 

● Mirrors and mobiles 

● Musical toys (toy piano, keyboard, drums, bells, etc.) 

● Cause/effect pop up toys 

● Nesting cups 

● Plush animals 

● Jack-in-the-box 

● Pots and pans! 

● Sand or water play 

● Shape sorters 

● Simple 1 to 3-piece puzzles 

● Busy boxes with pop-up items 

Symbolic Play

For ages 2 to 4 years, a child may engage in symbolic play where the child may use an object to represent something else, such as a block for a train or car 4. Activities common for this stage of play include using a blanket as a superhero cape or a cardboard box as a castle. Play at this stage involves creativity and constant change, which are important components of coping skills. Symbolic play is also important for underlying language skill development. 

Examples of items that can be used for symbolic play include: 

● Small and large blocks 

● Character figurines 

● Large and small boxes 

● Cups 

● Paper 

● Markers or crayons 

● Cars or trucks 

● Dolls 

● Clay 

● Playdough 

● Large Legos 

● Storybooks 

● Tricycle 

● Swing 

● Fabric play tunnel 

Creative Play

For ages 4 to 7 years, creative play is where a child begins to combine objects and ideas to develop interests and improve motor, cognitive, and/or social developmental skills 5. Craft activities such as putting together beads for a necklace or riding a bicycle around obstacles are common at this stage. There is often a challenge to overcome to produce an end result, but the process of overcoming that challenge is also an important part of the play. 

Examples of activities and objects that can be used for creative play include: 

  • Stringing beads for a necklace or bracelet 
  • Crafts that involve cutting and pasting 
  • Easy to assemble craft kits 
  • Weaving paper or potholders 
  • Stencil art projects 
  • Making a simple snack like peanut butter crackers or ants on a log
  • Scene drawings, such as a home and family 
  • Dot to dot or maze drawing tasks 
  • More complicated playdoh projects like making scenes from a favorite story
  • Helping to take care of pets 
  • Complex constructional toys like small Legos or K’nex 
  • Dramatic play like imitating book or movie characters 

Game Play

By the age of 7 to 12 years, games are where a child learns specific rules that can further improve social and coping skills as well as cognitive skills 6. Peers are important in these interactions as finding a compromise in activities is an important social skill for later success in social activities such as classroom team projects. 

Competition emerges as a greater focus at this stage, and how a child responds to competition can create new coping skills for facing disappointment as well as making friends with teammates. 

Examples of activities and objects that can be used for game play include: 

● Board games like Monopoly or Scrabble 

● Teams sports such as soccer, volleyball or basketball 

● Assisting with more complex cooking tasks like cutting up vegetables, putting away groceries, or decorating cookies 

● Card games 

● Jump rope games 

● Outdoor games like handball 

● Biking on trails 

● Roller skating, ice skating, or rollerblading 

● Strategy games like Battleship, Chess, Checkers, or Guess Who? 

● Woodworking kits 

● Advanced jewelry making kits 

● Drawing classes (in person or online tutorials) 

● School plays or drama performances 

● Academic or recreational clubs 

Facilitating play using the above guidelines can be a great way to build your child’s motor, cognitive, and social skills. Always supervise the child during play activities to ensure safety and monitor the child’s involvement. You can find out more about how occupational, speech and physical therapists use play to create changes for a child’s skill level by contacting the LKS office at 310-739-9337 or by email at 

scheduling@lksandassociates.com. Have a great day full of play! 

1 Parham, L.D. (2008). Play and occupational therapy. In L.D. Parham & L.S. Fazio (Eds.) Play in occupational therapy for children. St. Louis, MO: Mosby.

2 Skard, G. & Bundy A.C. (2008). Test of Playfulness. In L.D. Parham and L.S. Fazio (Eds.) Play in occupational therapy for children. St. Louis, MO: Mosby. 

3 Pratt, P.N. (1989) Play and recreational activities. In P.N. Pratt & A.S. Allen (Eds.) Occupational therapy for children. St. Louis, MO: Mosby.

4 Pratt, P.N. (1989) Play and recreational activities. In P.N. Pratt & A.S. Allen (Eds.) Occupational therapy for children. St. Louis, MO: Mosby.

5 Pratt, P.N. (1989) Play and recreational activities. In P.N. Pratt & A.S. Allen (Eds.) Occupational therapy for children. St. Louis, MO: Mosby.  

6 Pratt, P.N. (1989) Play and recreational activities. In P.N. Pratt & A.S. Allen (Eds.) Occupational therapy for children. St. Louis, MO: Mosby.

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