What is play?

Play is defined as an activity that a person engages in for recreation and enjoyment. For children, play is crucial to their development and learning. A child’s primary occupation is to play, learn, and socialize (AOTA, 2015). As a child plays, they develop the ability to problem solve, learn new skills, and use coordination and motor skills. (AOTA, 2011). It is important to remember that children learn best when they play with toys that are geared towards their developmental level  (raisingchildren.net). Encouraging play with toys that are above your child’s developmental levels can lead to frustration and distraction.  

why is PLAY important for children to learn?

Play is an important component of childhood learning. It fosters the development of motor skills, teaches children how to use their bodies, and helps children learn about the world around them. When a child “plays”, it can be a structured game with rules such as kickball, free play (building with blocks), or engaging with a toy or another person. Although play is perceived as “fun”, it is also a vital part of childhood development.

For example, an infant may “play” by cooing and giggling with mommy. That baby is developing the ability to make eye contact, socialize, and form a relationship. A toddler may play with blocks or toy trains. He is developing the ability to use his two hands together to connect the blocks, visual skills to line them up properly, and imagination to decide what he wants to build. As he plays on the floor with his train, he is crawling on all fours, using his body to bear weight, and using eye-hand coordination to keep his train on the track. A school-age child plays a board game with a friend. Although socializing and forming a friendship with a peer, he is also learning to follow rules, take turns, and cope with losing/ or learning to be a good sport.

As children grow older, the activities they participate in as “Play” activities change. So do the benefits and acquired skills of the activity they are engaging in.

When a child’s attention limits his ability to play for extended periods of time, it also interferes with his ability to develop the skills that naturally emerge from playtime. So, as you can see, PLAY IS VERY IMPORTANT


A child needs to be able to attend and focus for appropriate periods of time in order to engage in their play activity. For children with disabilities, attention, and lack of focus is often the culprit for limited play skills. This, in turn, impacts the child’s motor skills, socialization skills, and acquisition of developmental milestones.  Attention span increases with age. It can also improve depending on the activity presented. If a game or activity is presented to a child that is particularly hard for them ( for example, giving lite brite to a child with fine motor difficulty), they may be more prone to distraction.

Lack of attention is a symptom of many different disabilities. Attention Deficit Disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, and Autism Spectrum Disorder are disabilities where the lack of attention impact a child’s ability to participate in classwork, playtime, socialization, and more. Tourette’s Syndrome, Sensory Processing Disorder, and Developmental Disabilities are also diagnoses that are typically associated with attention difficulties.

Using Play to Increase Attention—TIPS AND TRICKS

1) Choose an activity that your child prefers – this may seem obvious, but a child can focus longer if they like the task. Very often parents say, “you think Johnny has attention issues in school? But he can play Legos or watch a video for hours at home!”  Yes, because he loves Legos. And watching a video isn’t a challenge. It’s different.

2) Limit the distractions in the environment – Clear the area of other toys, turn off the TV or any music. Even simple background noise from a fan can be distracting for children with sensory sensitivities. In school, teachers find it helpful to use a Study Carrel to block out extraneous visual stimulation in the environment. This can be utilized at home for tabletop play with fine motor and visual motor toys such as legos, pegboards, or magna doodle.

3) Provide a structured task with a definite ending.   “Look, we are going to do this puzzle together”. This way the child knows that the activity will come to an end. (AOTA, 2015).

4) Make eye contact throughout the activity. Let your child know that you are playing, too.

5) Give clear one-step directions “Find all the pieces with Olaf’s face on it”

6) Give verbal and non-verbal cues for your child to keep their visual focus on the task at hand.  It’s easy to say, “eyes on the puzzle”. You can also simply point or tap the table where your child should be looking as a non-verbal cue. Some children respond better to non-verbal reminders.

7)  Consider your child’s sensory needs. You may want to consider a seat cushion to provide sensory input during a tabletop play activity. You may also want to consider using “roughhousing” or other sensory toys to provide input to ground your child’s sensory system before introducing a more sedentary activity.

8) Keep it fun! Although play is very important, it is supposed to be enjoyable. It’s okay to take breaks or change the activity if you see a child begin to express discomfort, frustration, or anxiety.

[/et_pb_text][/et_pb_column][/et_pb_row][et_pb_row column_structure="1_3,1_3,1_3" _builder_version="4.24.2" _module_preset="default" global_colors_info="{}"][et_pb_column type="1_3" _builder_version="4.24.2" _module_preset="default" global_colors_info="{}"][et_pb_image src="https://missjaimeot.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/sensory-sock-278x300.jpg" title_text="sensory sock" _builder_version="4.24.2" _module_preset="default" global_colors_info="{}"][/et_pb_image][/et_pb_column][et_pb_column type="1_3" _builder_version="4.24.2" _module_preset="default" global_colors_info="{}"][et_pb_image src="https://missjaimeot.com/wp-content/uploads/2024/03/URBNFit-Exercise-Ball-Yoga-Ball-298x300.jpg" title_text="URBNFit Exercise Ball - Yoga Ball" _builder_version="4.24.2" _module_preset="default" global_colors_info="{}"][/et_pb_image][/et_pb_column][et_pb_column type="1_3" _builder_version="4.24.2" _module_preset="default" global_colors_info="{}"][et_pb_image src="https://missjaimeot.com/wp-content/uploads/2024/03/Indoor-Outdoor-Hammock.jpg" title_text="Indoor-Outdoor Hammock" _builder_version="4.24.2" _module_preset="default" global_colors_info="{}"][/et_pb_image][/et_pb_column][/et_pb_row][et_pb_row _builder_version="4.24.2" _module_preset="default" min_height="78.8px" global_colors_info="{}"][et_pb_column type="4_4" _builder_version="4.24.2" _module_preset="default" global_colors_info="{}"][et_pb_divider _builder_version="4.24.2" _module_preset="default" global_colors_info="{}"][/et_pb_divider][et_pb_text _builder_version="4.24.2" _module_preset="default" hover_enabled="0" sticky_enabled="0"]


1) Building play skills for healthy children and families. (2011). Retrieved 2016, 3/12, 2016

2) Bywater-McLaughlin, G., Carlsson-Paige, N. & Wolfsheimer-Almon, J. (2015). Reading instruction in kindergarten: Little to gain and much to lose

3) Handley-Moore, D. (2015). The role of occupational therapy with children and youth.

4) Learning to pay attention: Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) (2013). Retrieved 2016, 3/11, 2016.


To read all of Miss Jaime, O.T.’s posts in this series, check out my Functional Skills for Kids landing page.

For more information on the components and considerations related to Play, stop by and see what the other Occupational Therapists and Physical Therapists on the Functional Skills for Kids team have to say:

Gross Motor Skills and the Development of Play in Children | Your Therapy Source

Using Play to Increase Attention  | Miss Jaime OT

Help! My Child Won’t Play – Adapting Play for Individual Kids | Growing Hands-On Kids

How Play Makes Therapy Better | Therapy Fun Zone

How the Environment Shapes the Way Kids Play | The Inspired Treehouse

Why is my child “just playing” when they see an OT?  | Your Kids OT


Pin It on Pinterest