Tips for Applying Purposeful Play to Early Childhood SLP Practice

purposeful play

When parents and teachers see the big bag of toys I tend to carry with me each day, many assume that I play for a living!

Well, yes and no.

I make a point to have my sessions most closely resemble the “work” of my clients—who are primarily 3- to 5-year-old students with language delays, phonological processing disorders, or social communication weaknesses. For this age group, exploration and play are the primary methods in which they learn and interact with the world.

Why Play?

Early academic skills like “circle the animals” emerge in typically developing children between the ages of 4 to 5 years old. So asking children who are younger than that—or children who have cognitive or language abilities younger than that—to complete this type of task is a recipe for failure.

By using play, we can make sure that we are:

  • Meeting children where they are, developmentally speaking
  • Maximizing opportunities for success and carry-over
  • Modeling appropriate activities for parents that the kids will want to do at home

The challenge becomes choosing which toys to use and what we do with them to ensure we are targeting the goals we need to work on.

Planning the Purposeful Play Activity

For the vast majority of my students, I start with the goal and create a target word list. If we are working on a language skill, for example, this might be a short list of prepositions like on, off, and under. Or it might be categorization and animal vocabulary. It might also be a phonological processing goal like two-syllable words or final consonant deletion. Once I have my word list, I can look for patterns or easily grouped items and words.

Next, I choose a toy that will allow me to elicit those specific words easily. Ideally, this will also be an activity easily replicated at home.

For some really hard-to-connect-with kiddos, you might need to start with a preferred toy and choose targets as close to their goals as possible, even if it isn’t a perfect fit. Over time, begin to introduce new toys that are a better fit for your agenda.

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Purposeful Play in Practice

In practice, purposeful play might look like:

  • Putting vegetables in a big bowl and stirring the stew on the stove to target the /st/ sound
  • Building a track for motorcycles and helicopters to target multisyllabic words
  • Setting up a grocery store by grouping like items to target categorization skills
  • Hiding small toys “under” items in the room that are too high for the child to reach to encourage them to give directions to you like, “Look under the cup” or “Look under the box” to target prepositions

Simpler games are usually better than elaborate!

Build Success by Following a Child’s Natural Play Style

When you’re planning a purposeful play session, keep in mind how children naturally play. They tend to use what’s available, but not let the specific item dictate what the play is. If they are keen to cook up a storm in the play kitchen but no play foods are available, they’ll let blocks or other toys stand in as ingredients or food. They’ll also expand on themes and stories. So if they cook up a stew, they will probably move on to serving and eating—but baby might spill some on the floor, or you could suggest that you bring some leftovers to a friend.

You’ll find your young students attempting or using the skills you target more quickly when you present them in a meaningful context. Plus, you might find yourself enjoying your sessions more too!