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As I thought about the various topics with which I could begin this series, a simple question came to mind: Why play? It is a question that I have been asked many times over the years. Why is play such an important tool in speech-language therapy? What makes play-based intervention so effective? Or even more simply put, why do speech-language pathologists use so many toys in their practice?
A key ingredient to any successful speech-language therapy session is, in fact, fun. In order to make progress, first and foremost, kids must feel motivated and engaged. This is where play emerges as the ideal context for targeting a wide variety of communication goals, all the way from sound imitation to conversational skills.
Within play-based therapy, play is the stage, toys are our props, and we are the players, free to create any number of scenarios for practicing communication skills. Sometimes, this means playing with farm animals in a toy barn to work on imitation of speech sounds. For other children, it might mean “acting out” classroom themes with a school set and toy figures, to boost conversational skills. And still, for others, it could be simply blowing bubbles, to support shared attention and modeling of single words like, “Pop!” and “More bubbles!” The possibilities are virtually endless!
Ever wonder what's really happening behind-the-scenes during these play-based sessions? Read on to learn the Top 6 Benefits of Play-Based Speech-Language Therapy:
1) Play creates motivation. Before any progress can be made, there must be motivation. A child must have the desire to explore, engage, interact, and discover alongside a supportive, dynamic adult. Children learn best when they are enjoying activities tailored specifically to their interests and needs and simply having fun!
2) Play builds positive associations. It is incredibly important to nurture the way children feel about communication. For those kids who need extra support in developing their speech and language skills, frustration around communicating can sometimes be a part of that journey. Play-based activities ensure that working towards communication goals is a positive experience. The more positive and successful children feel in a speech-language session, the more likely they will want to try using their emerging skills in other contexts, such as school, the library, and extracurricular activities. By building positive feelings around communication, we prevent kids from feeling discouraged and instead, instill a sense of joy associated with communicative interaction that leads to self-confidence and independence.
3) Play provides a natural context for communication. Play is a natural part of childhood, one that inspires discovery, creativity, and imagination. It is also a format in which children can simulate their “real life” experiences as a way of practicing and understanding how to communicate in the world around them. By encouraging this kind of practice during speech-language sessions and targeting specific goals within play scenarios, kids become well-prepared to generalize their new skills into their everyday routines. For example, “acting out” a pretend play scenario involving a school set and toy figures will easily translate to a child’s real life experiences in a school setting.
4) Play promotes relationship-building. Play is a context for bonding with adults and peers. Before the real work begins, therapy must establish and build rapport. Play is the tool that puts a child at ease, establishes trust, and generates excitement around session activities. Play is also the context in which children begin to take in their peers, starting with early social games like peek-a-boo. When children get older, play becomes more complex. It is not unusual to hear older kids exchange imaginative ideas, both contributing to an elaborate pretend plot with multiple characters, events, and resolutions. It is often within these play experiences that long-lasting friendships form.
5) Play provides support for social-emotional development. Children with well-developed play skills have an incredible tool that evolves and changes as much as they do from one year to the next. In many cases, children use play as a medium to understand their own personal experiences. Just as we adults have outlets to decompress and clear our heads, such as a long, hot bath or a good run, kids can similarly use play to work through thoughts and feelings. For example, a parent recently shared with me that her 2-year-old daughter noticed a crying infant in the waiting room at the pediatrician’s office. It seemed to make an impression. For the next week, she spent much of her time preoccupied with her dolls, commenting, “Baby crying!” She would then run to hug, kiss, and rock the doll affectionately. This little girl’s mother was particularly pleased to see her daughter “practicing” through play as a new addition to the family was already on the way! This was then a great start to using play to make sense of the experience of becoming a big sister, which would inevitably bring up many possible emotions.
6) Play supports all areas of development. All areas of development are connected and can impact communication in different ways. Play nurtures not just speech-language skills, but provides opportunities to build social skills, fine and gross motor skills, problem-solving skills, and attention and memory skills, to name just a few!
I hope this list has shed some light on the benefits of play, particularly its use in speech-language therapy. Ultimately, play-based speech-language therapy paves the way for a child to be motivated, curious, engaged, and successful in all aspects of communication.
Stay tuned for tips on how parents and caregivers can get involved in supporting their child’s play skills too. This is not just for speech pathologists! Play can happen anytime and with anyone your little one feels comfortable with. For some kids, the most impactful moments are those spent playing with a mom, a dad, a grandparent, a sibling, a babysitter, or a family friend. I look forward to sharing more with all of you very soon!