I love to play. I mean I really love to play! As a pediatric speech-language pathologist, I get to play every day (am I lucky or what?). I get to be a kid every day of the week. Somedays, I’m in a magical kingdom, riding a rainbow unicorn through cotton candy skies. Somedays, I’m a pirate searching for ‘me’ gold while warding off a giant octopus. And guess what? I’m developing my own thinking skills, my imagination, my language, and my interaction with others. Even better? I’m helping my patients do the same.
Play is more than just getting through the day, it’s the job of all children. Mr. Rogers said it best, “Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” B-I-N-G-O!!! Do you see the similarities between job and work? They’re the same (quick lesson, they’re synonyms too). That is the reason play is so important in childhood! Play is critical in a child’s development of cognition, motor, speech, language, and social-emotional skills (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2007).
I know some of you are thinking, “My child is only an infant. She doesn’t play. She only sleeps, eats, and poops .” Well, you’re 75% right and the remaining 25% is, wait for it.. play. Your child is learning that those ‘weird long things’ that kick and reach (legs and arms), sometimes accidentally hitting that thing-a-ma-jigger on the ground (rattle), and then it spontaneously jingles and jangles resulting in laughing and more reaching or kicking. It’s a first for your child, the first experience with cause and effect (insert loving “awe”). It doesn’t stop there for your baby. Non-verbal communication begins when she looks in your eyes and you look back, you smile, she smiles. You begin to make those silly sounds (you know the goo-goo-ga-ga sounds – don’t ever stop doing that!) and soon she is interacting with you as she finds her voice. She is building her social skills while playing with the most important person in her world, YOU!
Your child is growing and in a blink of an eye, is a toddler. Running through the house, keeping you always on your toes. Verbal language begins emerging and all of the sudden, you realize you must watch what you say as your precious little person begins imitating not only what you say but what you do. Toddlers learn so much while playing at this stage. Your child will begin to engage in make-believe play and parallel play (playing near a peer or sibling, but not actually playing with them). At the end of the day, you may be so tired of rolling that bus back and forth, but you can do it! Roll that bus. Even if you must fake the joy it brings you. You’re helping your child learn turn-taking, interactive play, and beginning conversations.
Another blink of the eye and your child is a preschooler. She is a bigger sponge, soaking up information from the world around. You know the box Amazon left on the doorstep yesterday containing that important purchase (toilet paper)? Well, today, it is a spaceship that will take your child across the galaxy (and bring back just in time for lunch). Your child’s cognitive skills are taking off, learning cooperative play, imaginative play, overall creativity and so much more. Your child’s attention span increases allowing her to want to play Candy Land over and over and over again. I’ve been there, and I would totally do it again. Trust me, it won’t last forever, and I bet you’ll miss it and find yourself asking her to play a round of Candy Land when she gets home from school. Mom and dad: now is the time. Take advantage of this time with your child. Take advantage of getting to put aside the craziness of day to day life to take your child on a journey to the end of the rainbow where they can fly through the clouds on shooting stars. When you do, know that you are helping your child grow in so many critical areas and you are giving them the attention they need and want from the most important person in their lives, YOU.
Ashlee Nealis, M.Ed, CCC/SLP