As an occupational therapist, people often ask me to give them some advice on simple things that they can do to assist their children within their home context. My answer is almost always the same simple word: PLAY.

We all have different occupations that fill up our lives. Think about all that you do as a parent on a daily basis. Eating, feeding, cooking, cleaning, bathing, dressing, driving, sleeping, helping with homework, talking to friends and family, disciplining, and the list goes on. While you may do some of these occupations more than you would like to (such as cleaning!) and others not enough (sleeping!), I hope that somewhere in the midst of all your different roles and responsibilities, you make time to play with your children.

Play is the primary occupation of a child: it is a natural activity essential for their learning and development. Play is not a luxury – it is a necessity. The less exposed they are to different types of play and stimulation, the less they will develop. I have first-hand experience with this when I deal with Severely Acute Malnourished (SAM) children within a hospital setting. These children have often suffered some sort of neglect and have missed out on simple play opportunities. Most SAM children are developmentally delayed and need a lot of stimulation to catch up to the level of their peers. They need to be exposed to different types of play that will assist them to learn the gross motor, fine motor, sensory processing, cognitive and social skills they need to function as normal children their age. Now these different skills do not need fancy equipment, a multitude of resources or highly skilled people – I know many impoverished mothers who give their children all types of fabulous play opportunities by using whatever they find around them.

All these skills develop slowly over time, and your child’s acquisition of them will depend on their age and desire to engage in play activities that promote those skills. The key is to create an atmosphere of fun so that your child won’t even notice all the new skills s/he is gaining. Play should be spontaneous, internally motivated and be self-driven. Allow your child to take the lead in play activities and try not to be prescriptive in what or how they should be playing. The moment you force them to play in a particular way, they may lose their desire to engage and the value of play is lost. Play is all about the means, not the ends. I often find that parents try to tell their children what to do during an OT session to help them succeed in whatever activity they have chosen. For example, the child and I will be playing with play-dough. I will be focused on showing the child how to create fun animals out of the dough, while their mother is so focused on the rolling techniques that the child should be using, that the child switches off and no longer wants to play.

Here are some simple ideas on how to expose your child to a variety of play opportunities within your home context:

Gross Motor Skills

Fine Motor Skills

Sensory Processing Skills

Cognitive Skills

Social skills

The skills required to control large movements of one’s body. The coordination of the small muscles in the fingers and hands. The way we interpret and manage messages we have received from our nervous system (senses). The brain-based skills we need to carry out any task. The skills we use to communicate and interact with each other (verbal and non-verbal).
Play ideas:

  • Obstacle courses
  • Walking/ jumping forwards/ backwards along a line in the sand
  • Imitate animal walking (bear, kangaroo, snake, frog, crab, etc.)
Play ideas:

  • Threading/ beading
  • Playing with play-dough
  • Playing with Small movable toys
  • Drawing /  colouring-in / writing
  • Finger painting
Play ideas:

  • Making mud pies
  • Listening to & dancing to music
  • Looking at different lights, colours, movements
  • Smelling & tasting different types of foods/spices
  • Swinging on swings/around in circles
Play ideas:

  • Puzzles
  • Matching games
  • Where’s Wally type games
  • Games that assist in learning basic concepts (shapes, colours, etc.)
  • Problem-solving games
  • Memory games
Play ideas:

  • Turn-taking games
  • Sharing games
  • Leading and following games
  • Games that promote sharing & interpreting of emotions (fantasy games)

With the above skills in mind, you may start to wonder whether your child is ‘on par’ with others in his/her age group. It is essential to remember that all children develop differently, they all have their own personalities, likes and dislikes, and may simply be better in some areas than others. But, if you are really worried, here are a few things to look out for that may need the help of an occupational therapist. If your child is regularly unsuccessful in completing a task, mastering a skill appropriate for her age, or is having problems at school learning new concepts and retaining information, an OT may be helpful.

Some common warning signs include:

  • Delays in developing motor skills like sitting, crawling and walking

  • Having poor hand/eye coordination, bumping into objects and being clumsy

  • Struggling with good posture, and balance and may appear too floppy or too stiff

  • Difficulty holding a pen, scissors or utensils correctly

  • Difficulty tying shoelaces or doing up buttons and zips

  • Poor handwriting or reversal of letters and numbers

  • Inability to accurately copy from a board

  • Struggling with the concept of left and right

  • Poor sleeping patterns

  • Becomes overly sensitive or is very unresponsive to certain sensations such as loud sounds, bright lights, deep or light touch, specific foods or certain types of movements

  • Aggressive or impulsive behaviour

  • Difficulty controlling emotions and interacting socially with family and peers

  • Struggling to adapt to new environments or changes in routine

  • Wanders aimlessly without purposeful play

Teach your child to play & you will equip them with skills for a lifetime.

Play is the highest form of Research.” (Albert Einstein)

Caryn Kemp is a  proudly South African occupational therapist working in a government hospital in a small town called Middelburg. In 2013 she spent a year in rural South Africa serving a purely isiZulu speaking population as a community-service OT. Through this experience, she was reminded of her love for the great outdoors, disabled children, empowering women and searching for hope in difficult situations. She has written a blog to document her experiences during that year and has continued to share her stories as a Christian OT working under some tough conditions.