Imagine a newborn lying on a mat and reaching for toys hanging overhead, a toddler building a tower of blocks and knocking them down—over and over again—or a child bouncing and catching a playground ball with peers. Each child is playing and learning at the same time. They are learning about their strength, balance abilities, problem-solving and motor-planning skills. They’re discovering textures and shapes, exploring environments, processing emotions and communicating with their peers.
Mr. Rogers once said, “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.”
As a pediatric physical therapist, I see this work in action every day. Part of my job is to support children and their families to find play that is meaningful to them to help them reach their goals and better move their body.
Play is what gives meaning to children. Why would they want to roll over, crawl, kick a ball, color a circle or sing a song? These activities allow them to interact with their environment, peers, families and communities. A baby rolls over to explore a toy and better see the world. A toddler sings “Itsy Bitsy Spider” with the hand motions to connect with a parent. A child plays soccer at recess to learn new ways to move the body and form relationships with classmates. Play isn’t just fun to be earned after the serious learning. Play is where the learning happens.
Meaningful play looks different for every child based on needs, abilities and any diagnoses. For example, one child may find great meaning in putting a shape in the correct hole on a shape sorter toy while another child may be more interested in the sound and feeling of hitting the two plastic shape toys together. Both are OK! I want to impress upon you that there is no right or wrong way to play.
This last point is especially important to consider as we learn more about connecting with and supporting neurodivergent children.
Neurodivergent children, or children presenting with traits that are not considered neurotypical, may choose to play in various ways that you may not have considered. As a caregiver, you may have a preconceived notion of how to play with a particular toy and your child may do something completely different. When you make this observation, I want to challenge you to take a step back and observe your child first before interjecting. How is your child choosing to interact and play? What information is your child gathering from that play? Why is it meaningful? If you want to join in and play, consider whether you can find a way that you can connect with them in the desired play first. Then you can continue to share other ways to play and allow your child the opportunity to explore that new idea. No stress, no agenda.
Remember, there is no right or wrong here. Be open to wherever this play may go. Play should be a beautiful, reciprocal relationship. All parties involved can be simultaneously learning and teaching. I think you’ll be surprised what you learn about yourself and your child when you let go of any expectations for play, follow your child’s lead and allow the experience to unfold naturally.
Dr. Bonnie Soto is a pediatric physical therapist at the Frederick Health Physical Therapy and Sports Rehab Liberty Clinic at 194 Thomas Johnson Drive in Frederick. She is married and has two young children. You can connect with her on Instagram at Milestone__Mama or TikTok @MilestoneMama.