Playing With Purpose at the Holidays

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Play is absolutely essential to the growth and development of children. From a young age, play is a child’s occupation. In 2017, the Melissa & Doug company partnered with Gallup to conduct a study on how children spend, prioritize, and value play. The study found that "child-led, unstructured play ranks near the bottom of the priority list for parents."

However, this type of play has significant benefits for children. It promotes creativity and problem-solving, develops resilience and grit, and builds social and cognitive skills including, speech and language development (Connell & McCarthy, 2014).

The upcoming holiday season is a time for gathering, family bonding, and relaxation with loved-ones and friends. And it is also a time when your children and clients have many days off from school or childcare. While the break can be an essential time to reset, recharge, and prevent "burnout," it's also an opportunity to provide structure, learn, and have fun if you Play With Purpose.

Tips for Playing with Purpose at the Holidays:

1. Take advantage of your time in the car.

*     If a child is at an age where they are working on letters and numbers, then play a license plate game. Print or write out a page with all the letters of the alphabet and the numbers 0-9. As the child sees a letter or number on a license plate, they can cross it out on their page.

*     Play "I Spy" to work on vocabulary and descriptive terms. For an older child (ages 4 and up), describe something for him and see if he can guess what it is.  For example, say “I spy something red, that’s an octagon, and has the letters s-t-o-p on it.”  Adapt the descriptions to the child’s skill level.  If the child is just beginning to work on colors and shapes, use a lot of those words in the descriptions.  However, if the child is older and working on learning adjectives and more complex language,  include more of those in the descriptions.

2. Get the body moving.

*     Research has shown that creating experiences that target multiple senses will provide increased opportunities for learning and help to cement a new skill more deeply in the brain (Connell & McCarthy, 2014).

*     Play the game 'Snowman Says'; it's the same game as 'Simon Says,' but with a winter theme. This game will develop listening skills and work on following directions.  Start with a one-part command such as jump, turn around, or touch your toes. Once the child has mastered a one-step instruction such as "jump," you can move on to a two-step direction like "jump and then clap your hands."

*     Build an obstacle course to combine gross motor movement with language learning. To work on auditory memory skills, give the child directions on how to go through the obstacle course and see if they can execute the steps. Start with an obstacle course that is 3-5 steps first and then increase the complexity as the child's skills develop. This would be a fun activity to play in the snow and also great to play indoors in a small space.

3. Spend time reading.

*     The holidays and this time of year are an excellent opportunity to expose children to new vocabulary. The more words a child knows, the more information they can access and vocabulary growth is directly linked to overall school achievement (Weitzman & Greenberg, 2010). Use books as an opportunity to highlight words the child may not otherwise be exposed to. Perhaps you live somewhere without snow, or a family celebrates Hanukkah, not other seasonal holidays like Christmas or Kwanza, use a book to create an experience or highlight new vocabulary.

*     Whether the child is in the mood for holiday stories like The Night Before Christmas or the newest installment from a favorite series, this break provides the perfect opportunity to stash school books and read for fun. Encourage relatives to give books as holiday gifts or gather in front of the fire to take turns reading from classic tales.

4. Have family game night.

*     Many games, already owned or arriving as a holiday gift this year, will reinforce skills such as counting, reading, and drawing.

*     Because most games for young children require 2-4 players, increased social interaction is one of the most apparent skills children learn when playing games.. When a child is first learning to play games, it’s important to have an adult play along. Adults can model strong social skills for children and help facilitate the play. When a child gets older, they can play on their own, with friends.  Many social cues arise during games including maintaining eye contact with others, understanding facial expressions, nonverbal gestures, turn-taking, and patience/waiting.

Have fun this holiday season as you explore Playing With Purpose!

Emily Cohen, MA, CCC-SLP received her Master’s of Speech-Language Pathology in 2008 from Eastern Michigan University. She is a Hanen certified SLP specializing in woking with children with early childhood language delays. Emily owns a private practice in Austin, TX called Tandem Speech Therapy. You can read more about Playing With Purpose and topics related to speech and language development on her blog.

Connell, G., & McCarthy, C. (2013). A moving child is a learning child: How the body teaches the brain to think (birth to age 7). Free Spirit Publishing.

Weitzman, E. & Greenberg, J. (2010). ABC and beyond: Building emergent literacy in early childhood settings. The Hanen Centre: Toronto.