Fun and Function: How to Optimize Play

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“Lizzy, How do you know how to have so much fun?” asked my sweet (and sour) four-year-old nephew from the dining room table. We were rolling logs of play doh into cookie batter, then using scissors to slice them into individual delicacies. The game had been going on for over 45 minutes.

Secretly, I was evaluating his fine-motor skills: in-hand manipulation, two-point pinch, hand strength, fractionation, in hand manipulation and bilateral coordination.

I was keeping track of how many directions he could remember, his ability to split attention between competing environmental stimuli and his ability to problem solve and plan. I was consistently providing feedback (verbal and physical), praise and ideas for what we could play next.

As an OT, this juggling act is extremely intuitive and flow-inducing.

For a child, it is a lot of fun. Or what I like to refer to as “tricking kids into doing work”.

“Without this playing with fantasy no creative work has ever yet come to birth. The debt we owe to the play of the imagination is incalculable”. Carl Jung

Hands-on play is more beneficial for developing problem solving skills then passive learning or visual learning. Likely, because play provides a flexible approach to one’s own environment and helps to solidify the preferred ways of problem solving . Thus, playing in the world of three dimensions (ahem, not the tablet) can facilitate the innate magic of children in a multitude of ways.

Lila (लीला LEE-lah) is a sanskrit word to describe this concept of play (or, play/sport/spontaneity/drama).

A word that is not entirely translated into the english language without loosing a piece of it’s wholeness:

“In Hinduism, a term that has several different meanings, most focusing in one way or another on the effortless or playful relation between the Absolute, or brahman, and the contingent world…Some philosophers argue that lila springs from the abundance of divine bliss, which provides a motive for creation.” –

There is ample research to support the relationship between play and development. 

What we want to optimize, is how we facilitate play.

Because let’s face it, playing with an adult peer can be very boring for a child. An unimaginative, large, worried thing is crowding up their pure little play vibes with all their baggage and stress.

The issue is. so many of us are clueless about how to play with our kids! Playing effectively requires creativity, vulnerability and mindfulness. And seriously, even on our best day, balancing all those qualities while interacting with a little one can be an extreme practice in patience.

So how can we, as adults, optimize play and therefore development for our little ones?

  1. Create a “Just Right Challenge” Self-Determination Theory (SDT) outlines ways a human can act from a place of intrinsic motivation. Overcoming challenges and succeeding (competence) is a sure way to boost your child’s psychological needs. This means selecting an activity that is not too hard that the child will fail, but also not so easy they will turn into little ego-maniacs because they are so awesome at everything. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi outlines the idea of this optimal challenge during activities to produce a state of flow, or sustained engagement that transcends fear of failure, time and distractions.
  2. Get down on their level. Literally. On the floor. I don’t care that you just got your pantsuit dry cleaned and there is cat hair all over your carpet. Mirroring your child’s body language will create an atmosphere of relatedness and display that you are ready to engage. According to SDT, fostering social connectedness is a way to improve well-being for both you and the little one you are trying to trick into playing with you.
  3. Three words: Goal Directed Actions Getting back to Csikscentmihalyi’s idea of flow, another important component must be incorporated into play to derive benefits. That is, having a goal. You see, I am all about these sensory-based interventions, my major critique of most is that they are not goal directed. Adding a goal to play can be relatively simple and create a deeper level of engagement. For example, incorporating an age appropriate puzzle into an obstacle course, or hiding a pre-determined amount of chocolate chips into your cookie dough hide and seek. This is especially important for younger ones who are developing their imaginative play skills. Older children may benefit from stringing a series of short term goals together in one mega-play session.
  4. Act Very Goofy: While you are at it, try mirroring their excitement. Anecdotally, I have a large number of children in this world who mimic my over-enthusiastic reaction to everything. Simply putting on my shoes in front of them may elicit a hearty “oooooooh, wooooow, cool!” Clinically speaking, I utilize this mode of communication to display my engagement and model how much fun social engagement during play can be. Displaying relatedness is extremely important for psychological health, according to SDT.
  5. Use Those Strengths! Every human should know their strengths, parent, child, pet-owner, college student, employee, cousin, whatever. Know them and own them. This site has a comprehensive battery of psychologically valid tests you can use to determine everyone’s strengths.
  6. And Finally, Feedback. Feedback can be used constructively or positively. Try and stick towards positive feedback, unless working on age-appropriate skills (which is best left to a professional). Ask lots of questions to help facilitate problem solving (don’t solve their problems for them)

So there you have it. Six very simple ways to optimize play. Remember, by enhancing these experiences, you are enhancing a child’s life.

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