As a therapist, I frequently find myself telling parents to add more structure — structured mealtimes, structured bedtime, and structured play. Adding structure can help your child develop regulation, independence, and social emotional skills as it helps them understand expectations and routines. But how do you add structure to playtime? Isn’t playtime, by definition, unstructured? Not necessarily.
Many children actually struggle with play because they lack the ideas to develop play schemes, also known as motor planning ideation. Children with poor motor planning ideation often repeat the same activities over and over, and it can be difficult for them to engage in novel play ideas. This can pose a challenge once your child starts making friends, and they don’t know how to join in their friend’s idea.
So how can you foster play at home? There are many fun, simple activities that you can do at home to build your child’s play skills and confidence.
Make an Obstacle Course — There are so many household items that can be used to make an obstacle course. Have your child crawl over a pile of pillows, pull a laundry basket across the room, and log roll from the couch to the door. You can make one step 10 jumping jacks or animal walks from point A to point B. Tell your child how many times they have to do the whole course, or draw out each step so they can work on sequencing.
Play a Board Game — Board games are great for building executive functioning skills, like problem solving, sequencing, and memory. They also work on social skills like turn-taking and learning how to lose. Some OT favorites are “Sneaky Snacky Squirrel,” “Memory,” and “Robot Face Race.”
Expand Ball Play — Some kids, especially younger ones, are incredibly motivated by playing with balls. Help them come up with new ideas so they aren’t doing the same thing over-and-over. Roll a ball down the stairs, set up blocks and knock them down, and throw it back-and-forth while saying the ABCs. If your child struggles to catch a ball, switch to a balloon to give them more processing time.
Follow Their Lead — Maybe your child has a hard time letting you into their play idea or doing something with more structure. The best way to involve yourself? Get in the way! Maybe your child enjoys lining up their toy trains. Make your hand into a tunnel and see if the trains can go through! Or use your hand to block the next train from being added so they have to move your hand out of the way. Even simple play is play.
Get Messy! — Messy play can be intriguing yet scary for children. Once the weather heats up, go outside and use shaving cream to give their toy cars a bath, or put paint on the grass and run your feet through it. For inside messy play, set up a tray where you can make slime or build a Play-Doh pizza.