Over the last few decades, there has been a push in the research community to focus on the power of play in child development. Within the therapy communities, play is a highly utilized teaching format we used to expand communication skills. There is a quote floating around that says “Scientists have recently determined that it takes approximately 400 repetitions to create a new synapse in the brain—unless it is done with play, in which case, it takes between 10 and 20 repetitions!”~Dr. Karyn Purvis

Unfortunately this quote is not 100% backed by research evidence that can be found. However, I like to believe a version of this has to be true.

Play is the work of childhood. For children, play isn’t taught. It comes naturally, freely and isn’t forced. Children of all cognitive, physical, communication abilities are capable of play. Play changes as children get older, formed by their experiences with parents, friends, siblings.

Language and communication skills are further promoted through pretend, imaginative play. Before kids, I envisioned play with my future children as board games like Guess Who and Yahtzee and learning how to play sports. Now I see play is significantly much more encompassing. Through imaginative play, children become more creative, perform better at school and develop a problem-solving approach to learning (Dansky, 1980; Dansky & Silverman, 1973; Frost et al., 2001; Fromberg & Bergan,1998; Peplar & Ross, 1981; Singer, 1973; Sutton-Smth, 1986).

PLAY IS PLEASURABLE. Children must enjoy the

activity or it is not play.


engage in play simply for the satisfaction the

behavior itself brings. It has no extrinsically

motivated function or goal.

PLAY IS PROCESS ORIENTED. When children play,

the means are more important than the ends.

PLAY IS FREELY CHOSEN. It is spontaneous and

voluntary. If a child is pressured, she will likely not

think of the activity as play.


physically and/or mentally involved in the activity.

PLAY IS NON-LITERAL. It involves make-believe.

Resource: The Power of Play: A Research Summary on Play and Learning. Dr. Rachel E. White for Minnesota Children’s Museum.

It’s unlikely you’re going to find yourself, as a parent, with a free 20 minutes today with nothing to do. And if you do, it will quickly fill up with tasks from your “should do” list. Remember, play does not have rules. It doesn’t need to look like what you think play looks like so try to build it in to your daily framework.

Here are my tips for squeezing in moments of play during your already busy days. Play might not be on your “should do” list but keep these on your mental backburner to mix up the day.

Guess What. In the car our family uses a variation of 20 questions and I spy to keep play going in the car. My son usually initiates the game by saying, “Guess what I’m thinking of.” By stating 2 or more clues to get the other passengers to guess the object, animal or person, we’re expanding our describing abilities, working on perspective taking and taking turns. We went through a phase where the only answer was “robot” but now we’re using our imagination to talk about animals, tools, people, and the list goes on and on. For our younger passengers we keep it basic to describe objects easily visible from the car, maybe pointing them out for them to label, always fostering a successful guess.

Scavenger hunts! I love this for indoor and outdoor play. This also another fun way to work on language skills such as describing and counting. It adds extra excitement when I draw a picture of items on a piece of paper and send them out on their adventure. They are usually in charge of finding miscellaneous items but the trick is to keep it fun and not feeling like work. I encourage development of concepts by asking them to find me 3 objects that are round, 2 red things and all the dirty socks that have escaped the laundry basket. Of course, all of this adjusted depending on age.

Kitchen help. I always encourage little kitchen helpers. I pull up a stool or a chair and give a kitchen job to the volunteers. Playing with food is an awesome way to promote positive interactions with all types, colors and textures of food. I find that if my kids are able to play with foods with their hands, they are much more likely to try eating it and maybe even enjoy it. We clear a space to make a design out of cherry tomatoes, make a cracker tower or practice cutting lettuce with a plastic knife.

Bath time. Time in the tub is fun for our kids no matter what we introduce to it. I’m pretty sure they don’t need me to consider it play. However, we’ve added miscellaneous cups and syringes to bath time and all of a sudden we’ve created an ocean world with movement, activity and imagination.

Forts. It just takes a blanket and a little imagination. We prop up pillows between couches and end tables, anything works. We like to pretend the fort is a grocery store, an office, a space ship. Although I usually never can fit myself in our forts for very long, by initiating this play scheme, I’m setting my kids up for a new play script. If I introduce an idea about what the fort might represent, they usually take the play to the next level on their own.

Lastly, focus on the language you use when presenting new play ideas. Note the difference between the following statements:

“You need to go find me somethings around the house” versus, “we have a mission to complete! I bet you can find these so fast!”

“You can go build a fort” versus “Let’s create something amazing! I have an idea!”

“You can go play while I make dinner” versus “Come be a chef with me”

The wording and the excitement we can bring to our instructions can completely change the way our children view a task. There is no limit to how can we can transform our instructions to get through daily activities into playful learning opportunities. Start my changing your “you” statements into “we” statements and see what kind of responses you see.

For more information, check out the Minnesota Children’s Museum research here: