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What is play?

Play is characterized by an activity that denotes joy, meaning, active engagement, iteration, and social interaction. Play promotes learning, physical health, fine and gross motor skills, social and emotional well-being, language skills, and overall brain sharpness. Play develops the necessary neural pathways that are needed for life!

Play develops in different stages and takes on different forms.

As a child grows, they may progress through these developmental play stages and engage in various forms of play.

A child may engage in free play, guided play, or games.

  • Free play, also referred to as self-directed play, is when the child plays with a peer or independently without an adult engaged.
  • Guided play utilizes child-directed play but adds adult scaffolding to achieve a learning outcome.
  • Games can fall into different categories. According to some experts, organized sports such as soccer or baseball do not qualify as play, as it is not child-directed. However, a game may be initiated by an adult, but if it progressively includes child led components, it qualifies as play. Games are set up as playful learning tools. For instance, counting in a board game, learning social skills of turn-taking, utilizing working memory and language skills to press the letter before the buzzer goes off, etc.

Don’t underestimate the power of getting on the ground and playing with your child. Research proves it is necessary to develop the skills that are needed for success.

Below we have attached various resources that you may read to learn further about these topics. Of the articles, we encourage you to read the Power of Playful Learning in the Early Childhood setting. In the coming week, we will discuss how to improve play with your child who has special needs.


Hirsh-Pasek, K., et al. (2022). The Power of Playful Learning in the Early Childhood Setting. NAEYC. Retrieved December 3, 2022, from https://www.naeyc.org/resources/pubs/yc/summer2022/power-playful-learning

Admin, A. (2022, May 24). The 6 Stages of How Kids Learn to Play | Child Development. Pathways.org. Retrieved December 3, 2022, from https://pathways.org/kids-learn-play-6-stages-play-development/

Brenna Hassinger-Das, Tamara S. Toub, Jennifer M. Zosh, Jessica Michnick, Roberta Golinkoff & Kathy Hirsh-Pasek (2017) More than just fun: a place for games in playful learning / Más que diversión: el lugar de los juegos reglados en el aprendizaje lúdico, Journal for the Study of Education and Development, 40:2, 191-218, DOI: 10.1080/02103702.2017.1292684

The Case of Brain Science and Guided Play: A Developing Story. (n.d.). NAEYC. https://www.naeyc.org/resources/pubs/yc/may2017/case-brain-science-guided-play

Playing with your child who has special needs.

 Evidence-based research on play therapy with children who have Autism and ADHD is growing, but current research suggests it to be effective in improving social symptoms. Research highlights structured play groups as an effective treatment. Research also highlights the benefits of play therapy for children who have undergone trauma, as a way of improving the bond between the foster or adoptive parent and child. Overall, the research is significant in highlighting the parent’s confidence in playing with their children.

Begin with observing your child and joining them in their play. Remember play can be anything so long as it is: joyful and meaningful, the child is actively engaged, they repeat the process, and it involves social interaction. If your child likes to run back and forth, try imitating them! If they like to make noises, make noises with them! If they make eye contact and touch you or smile, we have achieved play. Progressively add or change the play in minor ways while keeping a common denominator. For instance, make a noise and then begin to add a “beat” to it – making noise while clapping your hands.

Consider your child’s strengths. A child’s sensory system is fully developed by the age of 7 years old, but their frontal lobe, which includes their ability to plan, inhibit, organize, problem solve, emotionally regulate, and expressive themselves verbally, will not be fully developed until their in their mid to late 20s! Therefore, do not underestimate the importance of incorporating all the senses and teaching language by means of “doing.” Attempting real-life noises – the doggie doesn’t say “woof,” they really bark – lean forward and smell the cookie dough while you have your child help mix – ask questions about visual details – utilize their various senses. This will require the willingness for silliness.

Move your body. Moving improves cognitive functioning and makes a child more receptive to learning.

If it’s applicable, set goals! Goal setting isn’t just for our fitness and 401k. We can set goals that we “expect” the child to do when we play with them. For instance; Listen, share ideas, demonstrate good body language, stay collected, and have fun! As a rule of thumb, for the elementary-aged kids, I tend take their age and subtract 1-2 and give them that number of expectations.

Attached are some great resources of evidence based methods for improving play between a parent and their special needs child.

The National Professional Development Center on Autism Spectrum Disorder (n.d.). What are Evidence-based Practices? https://autismpdc.fpg.unc.edu/evidence-based-practices

Brown, D. (2018, July 12). Circles of communication in Floortime. Affect Autism. Retrieved January 4, 2023, from https://affectautism.com/2018/07/02/circles/

Transitions “into” & “out of” Play and Regulation for Play.

We all have times when we are “just right” and ready to learn, times we are low, and times we are running high. These indicate our arousal level and we all have a “bandwidth” of optimal arousal level that is conducive to learning. Perhaps that optimal arousal level is not 30 minutes after eating a big meal when your brain is in a fog. Or not family game night when your sibling has stretched the rules and your energy is running high. But there is an optimal stimulation band in which we process information that comes into our body, sustain and shift attention, have a positive disposition, and we self-regulate our behaviors – we phrase this as “regulated.”

If a child has special needs, you may experience that child hiking and diving on this bandwidth and wonder how to help them when they transition to/from a preferred activity or have difficulty regulating during play.

What are some fun ways to improve regulation for play?

  1. Visual schedules and visual emotional regulation charts are proven to be very helpful. In the book the Connected Child, they suggest using cards as a way to help a child know what to expect, allowing there to be a “wild card,” so that we may plan for unexpected moments. Programs like Zones of Regulation and the Engine Program are proven to be effective in helping kids recognize when they are too low or high and choose a tool, learning to modulate their regulation.
  2. Don’t underestimate the power of imagination. The portion of the brain that receives language sits next to the part of our brain where our vision lies. Does vision include imagination? Yes. Am I suggesting that a child may listen better if we incorporate their imagination? I am. Let’s crawl like bears to get our shoes on. We’re going to stomp our feet loudly like monsters to brush our teeth. Now let’s tiptoe and be as quiet as mice to our beds. Imagination is very healthy for our brains.
  3. Heavy work and deep pressure are calming for our nervous systems. Is play starting to get silly and out of control? Take a minute for resistance movements or providing pressure to your child’s body through playful ways. You may phrase it as “let’s take a half time and pencil roll on the ground,” or “let’s take a break and crawl,” or incorporate heavy work into the play such as crawling under pillows, frog jumping, mom or dad squeezing their child, etc.
  4. Set expectations prior to play or the transition that emphasize you as the leader, but aim to foster connection and fun. As I mentioned in week 2, set expectations within what the child can handle. It might just be “we follow directions, listen, and share ideas.” Pre-set expectations allows us to teach the child’s higher thinking so that when they get dysregulated they are prepared, we can redirect.
  5. When they get silly or frustrated, use your words wisely! When dealing with hiking and diving bandwidths, it is wise connect and redirect, using soft voices and body language and redirect to a solution, boundary, etc. You can learn more about this in the book, The Whole Brain child.

These are a handful, but not the only ways to help your child modulate their bodies. The Whole Brain Child, The Connected Child, and Raising a Sensory Smart Child are great book we recommend that can help teach you more on ways to help regulate and connect with your child.  Talk with your child’s therapist about strategies that may fit your child.


The Whole Brain Child by Daniel J. Siegal, M.D. and Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D.

The Connected Child by Karyn B. Purvis, Ph.D., David R. Cross, Ph.D., and Wendy Lyons Sunshine.

Raising a Sensory Smart Child: The Definitive Handbook for Helping Your Child with Sensory Processing Issues, Revised and Updated Edition by Lindsey Biel, MA, OTR/L and Nancy Pesky



The payoff and the cost

Will investing in your child’s play yield a return like investing in Roth IRA? I would argue, maybe!

The benefits of play for the child are well documented. I will name a few:

  • Play improves executive functioning skills. According to a clinical report written on the Power of Play, Executive functioning skills can be characterized by 3 dimensions: cognitive flexibility, inhibitory control, and working memory, which include various skills such as emotional regulation, problem-solving, time management, planning, and more. Studies have documented that strong executive functioning skills are indicative of success as an adult.
  • Play improves pro-social behavior.
  • Guided play improves learning in mathematics and language skills as compared to direct instruction. In a study that compared learning that took place in free play, guided play, and direct instruction, the results found that most learnings took place in guided play.
  • Play is good for the brain and stimulates neuroplasticity or the strengthening and creation of new neural pathways.

I have attached resources to reports below that articulate in more detail the many benefits of play.

Unfortunately, play has been declining since 1950’s, most noticeably in outdoor play with other children. According to an article written by Peter Gray in the American Journal of Play, he cites, the most objective attempt to quantify the decrease in play was done over a 16 year period. The work of sociologists at the University of Michigan made assessments of how children spent their time in 1981 and again in 1997. They found that children not only played less in 1997 than in 1981 but also appeared to have less free time for all self-chosen activities in 1997 than in 1981. For six- to eight-year-olds, the researchers found a 25 percent decrease in time spent playing and a 55 percent decrease in time spent conversing with others at home. In contrast, they found an 18 percent increase in time spent in school, a 145 percent increase in time spent doing schoolwork at home, and a 168 percent increase in time spent shopping with parents.” In contrast to the decrease in play, Mr. Gray continues to cite articles that document the increase in psychopathology in kids and adults across America. An indirect correlation between play and psychopathology exists, although this does not indicate causation. However, Mr. Gray makes different points for causation saying …..

Play is an easy investment and benefits the caregiving adult, as well. It can re-awaken an adult’s heart to imagination and joy. Per a clinical report written by the American Academy of Pediatrics, they cite that “one study documents that positive parenting activities, such as playing and shared reading, result in decreases in parental experiences of stress and enhancement in the parent–child relationship, and these effects mediate relations between the activities and social–emotional development.111,–113 

Our hope is that this will enlighten your heart to the benefits of play that each parent has the power of imparting to their child and themselves. If play promotes success and bonding, then when you are old and gray you will have more than just a Roth IRA to look after you.

Of the articles below, we encourage you to skim over the clinical report, The Power of Play.


Staff, P. (n.d.). Play. Psychology Today. Retrieved January 4, 2023, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/play https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/play

Gray, P. (2011). The decline of play and the rise of psychopathology in children and adolescents. American Journal of Play, 3(4), 443–463.


Hassinger-Das, b., Hirsh-Pasek, K., & Michnick Golinkoff, R. (2017, May). The case of brain science and guided play: A developing story. NAEYC. www.naeyc.org/resources/pubs/yc/may2017/case-brain-science-guided-play.

Ginsburg, K. (2007). The Importance of Play In Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds. Pediatrics, 119(1), 182-191. https://doi.org/10.1542

Yogman, M., Garner, A., Hutchinson, J., Hirsch-Pasek, K., & Michnick Golinkoff, R. (2018). The Power of Play: A Pediatric Role in Enhancing Development in Young Children. Pediatrics, 142(3), 182-191. https://doi.org/e20182058