A parent of a child who has Autism told me how shocked they were during their child’s first speech therapy session because their child and the therapist just ‘played’ for one hour... I don’t blame them! Watching a play-based therapy session with no background information on what is being done and the reason behind it can look like just regular play. However, there are many strategies which are used during play-based sessions to create an environment which strengthens the interaction between the child and adult as well as stimulates their language development. A therapist should always discuss this with parents before using a play-based approach so that everyone is on the same page.
Play-based therapy has certainly grown in popularity over the past few years. Personally, this is my preferred approach when working with young children. Here are some reasons why:
There are different types of play-based approaches, however, it is important to use one which is evidence based. Evidence-based approaches are made up of strategies which have been scientifically proven to stimulate and improve language development in children. Once these strategies are combined to form an approach, the approach as a whole is then tested again by scientific research. This rigorous scientific process has won me over.
2. Children Love It!
A play-based therapy session is far less structured than, for instance, a session where the therapist repeatedly holds up flashcards to a child (“say cat”). In a play-based session, children usually select the toys they want to play with and therapists can involve the child’s interest in therapy to make learning ‘fun’. As anyone who has children or who works with them knows, when children have fun, they will get more out of the activity and want to do it again.
3. It improves Parent-Child Interactions:
Again, this depends on the specific play-based therapy chosen. However, most play-based therapies focus on developing and strengthening interactions as a foundation for language development. Parents can be trained to apply certain strategies at home. Research evidence has even shown that some play-based therapies are more effective when used by parents than when implemented by therapists- go parents!
4. Endless Language Stimulation Opportunities:
Your child is likely to be most interested and attentive while they play. This creates many opportunities to stimulate their language development and know that they are listening. For instance, many children enjoy when people comment on what they are doing during play. This shows them that someone is engaged in what they are doing. So, as a result, children tend to imitate new words during play. If these words are repeated over several play occasions, they are likely to become part of a child’s vocabulary.
5. Play Simultaneously Targets Several Developmental Areas:
Here is how play helps a child develop language – when children play, they learn to use toy objects as symbols for real objects. This is a crucial step for language development which involves learning to use words as symbols for real objects.
Play not only helps a child develop language, but also stimulates their imagination, cognitive abilities, motor skills and social development. I have used pretend play many times when teaching young children to become more independent or to address behavioral problems during mealtimes. For instance, when a child is transitioning from using a bottle to a cup.
6. Wide Applicability:
I often get the question, “what do you possibly work on with a 12-month old child in your sessions?” The great thing about play-based approaches is that they can be used during therapy with children who are very young. They can even be used when working with children who are five-six years old with limited language ability. I have seen many children who have Autism, Down Syndrome or a general language delay respond really well and make significant gains with this approach.
In my opinion, play-based therapy is a fantastic speech therapy approach when working with young children. A therapist should always explain the therapy approach they are using to parents, as well as the research behind it and their reason for using it. As for any parents who are willing to apply this therapy approach at home - a person once told me, “if you don’t feel like laughing at your actions while you play, then you’re not playing well”. Keep that in mind the next time you take out the toys ;)
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