Why is play so important for children? Play is the primary way in which children learn to move, negotiate their environment, interact with peers, manipulate objects, and develop creative and critical thinking skills. Children also develop many other emotional and social skills through play, including self-esteem, confidence, independence, curiosity and resilience. During unstructured or free play, children are able to develop their own interests, work in groups and develop teamwork skills, learn to share, and learn to advocate for themselves and other peers. They are free to make their own choices in activities, and engage in new and challenging activities and sensory experiences. In more structured play, children learn to follow rules and directions in adult-led activities that often provide more specific skill development, such as sports or other recreational activities.
“Pediatric therapists lead children through structured and unstructured play activities to create just-right challenges and work toward meeting goals for more age-appropriate skills,” said pediatric physical therapist Martha Hunter from Blount Memorial Pediatric Rehabilitation. “Pediatric physical therapists, or PTs, use various techniques and interventions to help children meet their goals for movement, strength, flexibility, balance, posture and coordination. In the pediatric world, PTs use play as the primary motivator to encourage patient engagement and participation, as well as to generalize the targeted movements and skills more naturally for the child’s appropriate areas of development and interest,” Hunter explained.
“Pediatric occupational therapists, or OTs, address a child’s primary occupation – play,” said occupational therapist and rehabilitation supervisor Rachael Roper, also from Blount Memorial Pediatric Rehabilitation. “OTs create obstacle courses, work with paint, string beads, play games, and facilitate sensory input with activities like swinging, riding on a scooter-board or getting messy. OTs use play to develop fine motor skills, bilateral coordination, self-regulation and independence in all environments,” she said.
“Pediatric speech-language pathologists, or SLPs, promote early language development, articulation and communication through play – reading a book, singing a song, playing pretend with animals or other toys, making silly sounds and faces – providing a direct model that the child can attempt to imitate or mimic,” Roper continued. “SLPs also help children work on improving social interaction skills through peer modeling. Pediatric OTs and SLPs can encourage development of feeding skills through play, as well, making a silly face or design out of food to make new or non-preferred foods not so scary,” she explained.
“Pediatric therapists also educate caregivers in helping their children develop through play by demonstrating activities and skills, promoting reduced screen time in exchange for more unstructured play time, and providing individualized home activities to encourage more caregiver interaction and play with their child,” Roper added. As one parent of a patient commented, “Introducing play at dinner time has helped us to slow down at mealtimes and take away the stress that we all used to feel about trying new foods. Through play, my son has learned to be comfortable with new foods on his plate, touching those foods, and building up to taking bites and tastes of new foods.”
Blount Memorial Pediatric Rehabilitation now has two clinic locations in Blount County – located at 220 Associates Blvd. in Alcoa, and the newest location at 131 Cherokee Heights Dr. in Maryville – to serve children and families in our community. Each location offers physical, occupational and speech therapies to address concerns regarding a child’s development in fine motor and gross motor skills, expressive and receptive language, sensory processing, social and emotional skills, feeding, and activities of daily living.