Kid Confidential: Teaching Parents the Power of Play

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I don’t know if it is just my experience or if you too have found this to be a problem, but I have noticed the more I work with very young children, the more I realize parents do not actually know how to play with their children.  I know this is a trend I am finding to be true more and more often, however, I am still shocked when I see it.

Play is such an integral part of a child’s development as it affects all areas of growth including, but not limited to, social skills, communication development, cognition, problem solving and reasoning skills, and imaginative thinking.  Therefore, for those of us SLPs who are working with infant, toddler and preschool-age populations it is not just enough to model play or target language development, we must teach parents how to play.  You know the saying “If you give a man a fish, he eats for a day.  If you teach a man to fish, he eats for a lifetime.”  Well I believe this to be similar–we need to teach parents how to play so their children can continue to develop during the time we are not present as service providers and throughout their childhood.

I have noticed that sometimes even involved parents who are willing to participate in book reading and speech and language drill type activities, are still not always comfortable participating in play.  Involved parents want to know what they can do to help.  The problem is they don’t fully understand the importance of play or how their child’s thinking skills change and grow via play.

So what do I do about this?  How do I try to teach parents how to play?  Here are a few techniques I have used:

  1.  Parent education:  The first thing I do is teach parents why play is so important and how learning takes place.  I explain to parents why we need to incorporate play into our therapy and why their child needs to participate in play with them when I am not present. I also explain the types of play their child is currently exhibiting versus what types of play they should be exhibiting at their age (you can find more details on ages and stages of play here).  This truly helps parents fully understand their child’s current level of functioning and why focusing on play skills is so important to communication development.
  2. Never make assumptions:  When I was fresh out of graduate school I made assumptions that parents knew and understood child development.  But the truth is we cannot assume that parents have had the same experiences as we have had.  Even if we are working with parents of a large family, this does not mean they know or fully understand how to play with their children.  I have learned after making many mistakes to never make assumptions about what parents do or do not already know.  Rather than treating parents as if they are in need of education, I will say something like “I would be remiss if I did not explain/show you how to…”.  Other times, I will say something like “I’m sure you already know this but I need to explain that…”.  Again, these are just two ways to help share my knowledge with parents while not treating them as if they are uneducated or making the assumption that they know more than they do.
  3. Model and explain play:  I then create play scenarios at whatever level of play the child is functioning currently while attempting to expand the play and improve language and problem solving skills.  I carefully explain what I am looking for in a child’s play and how I am changing the play slightly in order to achieve those goals.
  4. Give the parents a turn:  It is imperative that I make sure parents have a turn taking over the play interaction.  I want to empower parents and make them feel as if they can play with their child when I am not there.  However, the only way to do that is to make sure they have an opportunity to practice these skills while I’m still there to assist.  If help is needed, I will guide the interactions while continually reducing support throughout the session.
  5. Videotaping for success:  Videotaping parent/child play interactions can be an invaluable way to educate and empower parents.  I like to videotape portions of interactions so parents can refer back to the videos as needed.  When parents see how they have taken suggestions and turned them into positive interactions with their child, they begin to anticipate and invest their time into participating in play more often with their child.
  6. Follow up weekly:  The key to making this technique work is to make sure I follow up with parents and hold them accountable for their child’s play week to week.  I encourage parents to take videos on their smart phones and save them for our next session.  This way I can see the growth in their child and continue to provide assistance as needed.

Parents are always looking for the “right” ways to play.  So I give them a few tips:

  1. Show some emotion:  I explain that parents need to make sure their face, voice and entire body is showing the emotion they want to exude.  So when parents look their child in the eye, smile wholeheartedly and say, “I’m excited to be playing with you today!” or “This is really fun!”, I know they understand the importance of emotional in play.
  2. Play when you can:  Parents often times shut down if they think I am asking them to play for hours a day with their child which ultimately results in no play from them at all.  Instead I ask them to try to play for one or two 15 minute increments a day.  For parents who work full-time and have several children, I have found this to be a more realistic expectation and request from them.  Also encouraging them to involve their other children in play is a stress reliever for some parents as children are great models for each other and many times siblings are vying for their parent’s attention.  Incorporating siblings in play, seems to help provide the much needed parental attention while teaching the whole family how to interact with a child who may have delays.
  3. Turn off the TV and turn on some music:  Parents believe their children do not watch much television however when I ask if parents like to leave the television on for background noise I tend to get more “yes” answers than “no”.  So I encourage parents to get rid of the visual distractions like television and if they must have some background noise, play some child friendly music instead.
  4. Change out toys the child has available to them:  I have noticed even with my own child that when I periodically change out toys available, I see very different types of play.  This can keep a child’s play dynamic and guard against stagnation.
  5. Mix and match toys:  Mixing and matching toys that would not typically go together encourages growth in a child’s imaginative play.  I have seen some amazing pretend play when I brought random toys to therapy for my clients.
  6. Use nondescript toys/objects:  Some of the best pretend play I’ve observed comes from objects that don’t seem to look like anything in particular.  Have you ever placed a few boxes and a bucket of blocks in the middle of a room and watched preschoolers play?  It’s amazing the “thinks they can think”.  The more nondescript the object, the more creativity goes into the play.Parents always ask me if they are “doing it right,”  if they are playing the right way with their child.  My response is always the same “If your child is smiling, laughing or fully engaged with you, then you are doing it right.”

Do you spend time teaching parents about the power of play?  If so, how do you go about it?

Maria Del Duca, M.S. CCC-SLP, is a pediatric speech-language pathologist in southern, Arizona.  She owns a private practice, Communication Station: Speech Therapy, PLLC, and has a speech and language blog under the same name.  Maria received her master’s degree from Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania.  She has been practicing as an ASHA certified member since 2003 and is an affiliate of Special Interest Group 16, School-Based Issues.  She has experience in various settings such as private practice, hospital and school environments and has practiced speech pathology in NJ, MD, KS and now AZ.  Maria has a passion for early childhood, autism spectrum disorders, rare syndromes, and childhood Apraxia of speech.  For more information, visit her blog or find her on Facebook.