The Power of Play: A Speech Therapist Shares Her Insights

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Faith Hudnall, pediatric speech-language pathologist (SLP) at Riley Hospital, talks about the benefits of play for children.

Often, people underestimate the power of a child’s play. While some of today’s play is often weaved into working on phones and tablets, I advocate for old-fashioned, hands-on, get-down- on-the-floor play.  My name is Faith Hudnall and I’m a pediatric speech-language pathologist (SLP) at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health. For over 14 years, I have practiced as a clinician, helping children of all ages better communicate.

Play is a time for exploration, learning and language. For instance, the American Academy of Pediatrics, is clear that “infants and children need hands-on exploration and social interaction with trusted caregivers to develop their cognitive, language, motor, and social-emotional skills.” 

Over the course of my career, I’ve noticed that one thing caregivers often focus on in a young child’s play is teaching rote academic skills like naming letters, colors, numbers, and shapes and nothing else.  While these academic skills have their place, it is more beneficial for a child to have a good grasp of words (which can make them a powerful communicator) and the best way to develop this vocabulary is through hands-on play.

To aid parents, I’ve included some helpful play tips and examples below:

Bubbles.  These can be used in many ways including being big/small and few/many. Bubbles are great for teaching patience and turn-taking.  Not only can the verbs blow and pop be used when playing with bubbles, but also run, jump, hug, clap, dance, kick, pat. The list goes on. In clinic, I like to cut a pool noodle in half and use the “sticks” as bats for hitting the ‘balls’ (bubbles) or use them as fly swatters for “shooing” the flies (bubbles). 

Dolls/stuffed animals/action figures. Throw a birthday party, visit the dentist’s office, save the day, you get the idea.  Dolls, stuffed animals, and action figures are great for acting out scenarios related to emotional language, describing physical needs (like hungry, sick, hurt), replicating household tasks (like washing dishes, sorting laundry). This kind of play is also great for re-enacting experiences like grocery shopping, eating out at a restaurant, taking animals to the vet and more.

Blocks. These are great for building vocabulary related to words like up, down, in, out, on, off, under, over, between, around, big, little, etc. Blocks are also great for building cooperation and negotiation skills in a group.

Books.  I like more interactive choices like touch and feel, lift-the-flap, and bath books for beginning communicators.  Books that have repetitive patterns (like in Brown Bear, Brown Bear) allow for “reading” before actual reading develops.  Remember, in order to raise a child that loves to read, it’s important for them to see people in their lives reading.

Puzzles. Peg puzzles are great for little fingers, and as children get older, interlocking puzzles become the goal.  Puzzles help build frustration tolerance and enhance problem-solving skills while also building vocabulary for concepts like turn, straight, right, left, top, bottom, etc.

Flip the script. If your child is into vehicles for instance, add a new component each time you play with those same toys.  Instead of crashing them or just rolling them, wash and wax them, air up their tires, pull them over to wait for a rainstorm or change their oil.

Board games and card games.  They can be used to teach turn-taking, waiting, and problem-solving.  They offer opportunities for lots of vocabulary exposure including how things are the same/different, quantity concepts like more/most/few/less, what cheating is/isn’t, and how to win and lose graciously.

The most important thing to remember: Parents, you are the most powerful tool in your child’s development toolbox. You know your child better than anyone and you spend the most time with them. Think back to your childhood. What were some of the most important things you learned through play? Then, ask yourself how you can promote the same skill development in your child.

-- By Faith Hudnall, MS, CCC-SLP

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