When I started out as a speech-language pathologist I remember how worried some of my classmates were about the clinical portion of our education - our first treatment sessions with actual real live clients. This was difficult for some, but I was lucky as I was one of the ones that just seemed to "get it". The hour (typical session time) just seemed to fly by, but I had friends that would complain that an hour was too long and that after 15 minutes or so the child would get bored and become "difficult to engage". At the time I didn't understand it and in my youthful arrogance I decided I was just a better therapist than they were and let it go at that.
It was not until I started my first supervisory position and began to watch other people's therapy sessions that I realized one therapist was not necessarily better than another in terms of knowledge of speech development but in knowledge of play. The ability to play with children in a functional way is not something that comes naturally to everyone and the disparity among the therapists that I observed was significant. Knowledge of speech development is, of course, integral to being a successful pediatric speech therapist, but the ability to be a great play partner is key.
Play was not a skill that was directly taught when I was in school but during this period I realized that it certainly needed to be. Children love to play and this is how they develop, learn and grow. As someone responsible for teaching a child, being good at play is not simply a bonus skill in your bag of tricks - it is the bag itself. I have always been a "kid person" but up until that point I had never given much thought to what actually made me a kid person. Children always wanted to play with me because, it turns out, I am a great playmate. With this realization I decided I needed to know what actually makes for good play so I could teach other therapists that were struggling in this area how to be a better playmate which would lead to better progress in therapy and more opportunities for learning.
Steps to Becoming a Better Playmate:
The first step in improving play skills is, believe it or not, put away the toys. Grown-ups often rely on toys to help them engage with children, but to become better at playing the toys need to go for a while. This is one of the bet ways to get your child like imagination back in gear. Imagination is the cornerstone of play. As adults we become literal and children are anything but literal when it comes to play. The thought of a one hour therapy session without one toy is daunting for many therapists, but the ability to engage with a child without anything but your brain is the best way to really get to know that child and to learn what their interests are and to see inside to where their imagination takes them.
Putting away the toys is the best way to learn how to focus on the child rather than the toys, and it is a great way to let a child know that you value them and that they are important. It is also the fastest way to learn how to do more than just hear what a child is saying. When you focus all of your attention on the child you are not simply hearing, but listening. It is listening that allows you to be a more responsive play and communication partner which will create better opportunities for learning. Listening will allow you to simply follow where the child leads and where the child leads is without a doubt where the best opportunities for teaching exists.
Give putting away the toys a try and let me know how it goes. I truly believe it is the first step in entering into a child's world rather than having them enter into your world. Next up we will take a look at the different roles that adults take on during play and whether or not they are effective - so be sure and follow this blog or check back so you don't miss out!