Your pediatrician has given you a referral to see a Speech Pathologist, along with a possibly too-brief explanation of why the referral is being made. After some independent research on the internet you feel you are prepped and ready to go for therapy. You’ve learned all about picture exchange systems, gestural communication and the difference between expressive and receptive language. You are feeling pretty confident about the whole process until your therapist whips out a Mr. Potato Head, Play Doh, blocks and dolls. ‘Toys?!? Nobody said anything about toys? What is she really doing in therapy?’ You quietly panic to yourself.
This is a common concern that many parents have when they observe therapy sessions that appear to be ‘all play’ and no structure. Fear not! Play-based therapy has been proven to be a powerful technique in the ever resourceful therapists’ arsenal. Research has proven that children, especially prelinguistic ( prior to talking) children, learn most early skills through observation and imitation. One of the most effective ways to get children to watch and do is to engage them in activities they actually want to…do. And if there is nothing more that children love, it’s play (and well, candy)! Therefore play-based therapy emphasizes using toys and play schemes to achieve goal facilitation. For example, if a child is working on using 2 words to request a desired object and is also working on labeling fruit and vegetables, the therapist can easily manipulate a grocery shopping play scheme to engage the child in using vocabulary. They could request the desired items and by pre-selecting the items available to child then the therapist is able to limit the products available to fruits and vegetables. Another play scheme could be set up for a child who is working on labeling clothing by using dolls that she must dress.
Almost all toys and games can be adaptable for therapy. When adapting play schemes, it is good to remember that children tend to respond best to things they are interested in and to new, novel things. If you can find a way to play with a beloved action figure in a way they haven’t thought of, even better. The play and opportunity for goal accomplishment is only limited by imagination.
Another technique that therapists use when integrating play into therapy is to have the child complete a set number of drills before being allowed to take a turn in a game or being able to choose a game or toy to play with on a short break. It should be noted however; that these instances are not examples of play-based therapy but of using positive reinforcement and a reward system.
Whatever methods your therapist may be using to incorporate toys or play into therapy are most likely justified and not a need for concern. As long as your therapist is able to provide a rationale for his or her activities, you can rest assured, your child is not just playing, but is indeed, working too! Even if they don’t know it!