Playing with play doh example of true play

How Parents Can Create Rich Learning Experiences Through True Play

When you hear the word “play,” what pops into your head? Store-bought toys? Video games? Something that can be done after a child completes real learning?

The unfortunate reality is that screen-based and battery-operated play doesn’t do children any favors. Computers, tablets, and video game devices limit socialization, creativity, and imagination. Even so-called educational toys force feed academics.

Which is better – a computerized toy that “teaches” shapes and numbers, or learning about shapes and numbers while piecing together a wooden puzzle?

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that we get rid of technology toys. However, we can strike a better balance between screen-based play and true play.

What Is True Play?

Real learning happens when we’re fully engaged in something that’s motivating to us. For children, play is the most effective vehicle for learning.

Boy with special needs in speech therapy with wooden puzzle

True play is any activity a child freely chooses to do because they’re intrinsically motivated. This allows the child to be active – mentally and physically.

“True play provides opportunities for a child to develop cognitive, communication, social-emotional, physical, and self-help skills. This can enhance a child’s creativity, curiosity, social interactions, problem-solving skills, concentration, independence, self-esteem, perseverance, and tolerance for frustration.”

Caitlin Burke – SLP

The challenge is that children today are drawn to technology. Of course, kids don’t always make the best decisions for their development. It’s up to parents to set rules and boundaries to manage technology use.

Less Passive Play, More True Play

What can parents do? Try to limit use of battery-operated toys. The more the toy does, the more passive the child becomes.

For example, instead of having a child sit there and watch a train move around the floor and make noise, let the child push the train, make their own sound effects, and play the part of conductor!

Let’s reframe our idea of play and provide kids with more opportunities for true play. Less is more! For example, choose:

  • Simple wooden blocks rather than ABC blocks.
  • A traditional puzzle rather than a battery-operated puzzle.
  • A generic doll house rather than a themed doll house like Peppa Pig or Barbie.

Finally, try to incorporate play into daily routines. Meals, baths, grocery shopping, and even cleaning up the bedroom can involve play and games!

Facilitating Play for Children with Speech and Language Delays

Adults can act as play facilitators, especially for children who have speech and language delays, by embedding language concepts into play activities.

For example, if a child is playing with Play-Doh:

  • Talk about what you can make (“Let’s make a snake!”).
  • Talk about what color it can be (“Let’s make a red snake!”).
  • Talk about the size of what you’re making (“Let’s make a really long snake!).
  • Talk about what actions you can take (“Let’s make the snake slither!”).

Remember, technology and toys with a bunch of bells and whistles are not essential tools for learning through play. Look for activities that allow your child to be more active, incorporate multiple senses, and use their imagination!


Cari Eberts’ The Power of Play in a High-Tech World seminar

Cari Ebert, MS, CCC-SLP is a pediatric speech-language pathologist and nationally known speaker that provides information packed seminars for early intervention focused therapists. Here is a list of her favorite toys and books on Amazon.

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