A quick Google search for speech and hearing activities will turn up hundreds of blogs, websites, and storefronts with ideas, kits, and books to turn therapy into fun. Playtime does more than engage a child. Research has proved that play is a child’s work.
This “work” develops cognition, the use of language in a social context, and speaking in general. Pretend play, especially, has shown more proficient imaginative, abstract thinking, language, social, problem-solving, understanding, life, and leadership skills, as well as higher self-confidence and self-esteem.
The three types of play, according to the “EC Bible,” Developmentally Appropriate Curriculum: Best Practices in Early Childhood Education, are functional play, symbolic (or representational) play, and game play. Functional play is sensory and motor play, like riding a bike or shooting a basketball—for older kids—and exploring textured objects—for younger kids.
Symbolic play is split into two categories—constructional and dramatic play—and makes up a lot of what young schoolchildren do during regular playtime. Constructional play is just that: a child using building blocks, clay, crayons, and so on. Dramatic play is the kind of mimicry we expect from children; playing “house” or “explorers,” and parroting actions they see adults do in everyday life.
The final stage—game play—is children playing games with rules and logic, where they need to tap the right social skills. Examples include card and board games, as well as sports. Looking at “play” from such a technical standpoint, it does look more crucial to development than anything else. For a more extensive (but still brief) overview, the American Speech Language and Hearing Association has a helpful blog post.
You don’t always need a specialized game to meet a therapy goal. With just a little creativity, you’ve got brand new avenues for “work” that look like nothing but “play” to a child.
The foundations of representational play—play dough, building blocks, toy kitchens and tool sheds—do more than unwind students. They can be valuable, subtle tools to hit target words, responses, and vocabulary (and, as a bonus, social skills). Scenario-specific sets, like zoo-, space-, or movie-themed packs, are great ways to shape a lesson and build a story in pretend play for a child to follow.
When playing, especially in the case of building block toys, going beyond vocabulary is key. Choose themes that offer lots of opportunities for ‘characters’ to interact with a student. For example, a supermarket opens up a lot of potential lines of dialogue, from making choices to discussing prices. Work through target sounds with related vocabulary.
Don’t invest in sets marked as “learning” kits, like lettered or numbered blocks. Integrate letters and numbers into a situation and treat characters or blocks like flashcards: for example, a building-block car has how many bricks, is what color, starts with what letter. By removing letters and numbers from the visual equation, you’re letting the child know that it really is “playtime.”
Capitalizing on pretend play isn’t the only way to integrate therapy. Any game you think of can probably be modified to become a supplement to therapy, be it schoolyard games, video games, or sports. The only limit you have is how far you’re comfortable with reaching out of the box.
It’s important to stress that while play is a great motivator and way to engage a child, it can also get in the way of therapy. The point of these games is to balance play with therapy, especially in a way that promotes fun and accomplishment. Getting into that sweet spot may take some trial and error, but the payoff—improved language and social skills—could be well worth the effort.