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Incorporating Learning into Play

By April Cooke, M.S.W., BCBA, LBA

Research has shown time and time again the importance of play to a child’s overall development, both for typically developing individuals as well as those who maintain a developmental disability. Spending time playing with your child encourages the growth of imagination, social skills, problem-solving skills, and language – not to mention strengthening the relationship between the two of you.  That means every moment of time you devote to play can have a big impact on your child’s development. No pressure!

As parents, we often find ourselves out of time, running in circles between our daily chores and busy schedules. It can quickly become overwhelming to try to fit play time in between homework, dinner, and bedtime – especially when you have children of different ages! Thankfully, the benefits of play are not restricted to your traditional play schema, and it doesn’t take a long stretch of one-on-one uninterrupted play with toys to reap those benefits either. You can incorporate play and learning into your everyday routine!  Sneaking in some play while you’re running those errands on the weekends (at the grocery store, in the car, and even while waiting in line) sounds daunting. But if you commit to the habit, it can accelerate learning in more structured settings as well.

Let’s take the grocery store as an example.  For younger kids, even just narrating what you see as you’re walking up and down the aisle and occasionally pausing for them to fill in the blanks can be considered play.  A trip to the grocery store can quickly become a learning environment once you point out the multitude of shapes, colors, and items and their functions, letters, and numbers.  “I Spy” is always a fun and simple game to play. Hold up two items and ask questions like – “which one is blue; which one do we eat; which one is a circle?”  In this way, you can further practice skills already learned and instill new knowledge all while checking off your to-do list!

On the way to the grocery store, older children can make a “helper’s grocery list” and check off items as they go into the cart.  Another variation could be tasking them with coming up with “snacks that are red” or even ingredients needed to make lunch.  The younger child could help find the green vegetable, and then you can task the older child with coming up with a story as to how the veggie got to the grocery store. The possibilities are endless!

As important as play is for your child’s development, it doesn’t have to always be the traditional idea of play, and it never has to be cumbersome.  Modern-day play can take place in a variety of settings and situations and is filled to the brim with learning opportunities!