“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood” – Fred Rogers

From the “old days” to our current times a.k.a “van toeka tot nou”

Our children often ask us how things were in the “old days”. And much to their surprise, there were no cell phones, internet, wifi, Xbox and tablets when we were growing up. We grew up in a time where we could ride our bikes in the neighbourhood, or roller skate to our friends’ houses, and swim until it got dark. We made mud-cakes and had pretend tea parties, or built forts and had a pretend war against a fierce enemy. We camouflaged ourselves with charcoal stripes on our cheeks and leaves in our hair. We wore uniforms that we created from scrap pieces of material from our mothers’ sewing cupboards. It is true that times have changed and that we should not compare the way our children are brought up with the way things were in the “old days”. The needs of children have stayed the same, but they are somehow expected to walk, talk, read, behave and perform as soon as possible, even before they are neurologically or emotionally ready. In fact, everything has sped up in this modern day and age, even for us as parents.

Which toys to buy for children at the different ages and stages to best stimulate their development is a question that we regularly ask ourselves (and others) probably even from before they are born. Baby and toy stores are literally packed to the ceiling with boxes containing colourful and often noisy battery-operated toys. The shopping experience is potentially a sensory disaster in itself. With excellent marketing strategies and packaging, we are somehow convinced that THIS is the toy we should get, even if it does not completely fit within our budget, and often against our better judgement. How often have we witnessed that children (even parents) end up playing with the bubble wrap, or playing with the ribbons and other pieces of packaging instead of playing with the gift itself? Toys can be so simply, and children really don’t need much, yet it seems that some children do not really attach value to too many toys, and there is a tendency to replace rather than repair broken things.

The purpose of this post is to reflect on play as a critical component of development in childhood, and to provide some guidelines to keep it simple, go back to basics and to assist with the selection of activities that facilitate play in children, especially with the summer holidays around the corner.

“Play is the work of childhood” – Jean Piaget

Play is a natural part of a child’s typical daily routine, like sleeping, eating, getting dressed, learning, and social interactions.1Through play, children learn to communicate, grow, and build the necessary skills to function in society. Participating in play is a fundamental part of growth and development throughout life. Sensory, motor, communication and social interaction skills need to be integrated for a child to be a successful play-mate. If a child has sensorimotor, emotional, or social deficits, his or her ability to play maybe compromised. 2 It is through play that children learn about themselves and about the world around them.3

Childhood is divided into the following stages: early childhood (0-2 years), middle childhood (2 – 6 years) and late childhood (6 – 11 years). 4 Each stage has its own developmental characteristics that we should “allow” as parents and therapists. We should try and encourage mindfulness when playing, so that children can be present in the here-and-now, without pressure to hurry-up and grow up. Children have to explore what their bodies can do, and later learn about the different things that objects can do, and how to use toys in different ways.

This process of exploring different possible uses contributes to their ability to form ideas about what to do with things, expand their play repertoire, and how to solve problems as well as connecting the actions with the appropriate language to attach meaning to their experiences.5,6 As parents and as therapists we have often heard about how “bored” children can get, but the question we should ask ourselves, is whether they are truly bored, or whether they do not know how or what to play.

During the different stages of childhood and having the opportunity to play freely, the foundation is laid for future learning, including their interaction with the environment and others. As Robert Fulghum wrote in “All I really need to know I learnt in kindergarten”7:

  1. Share everything.
  2. Play fair.
  3. Don’t hit people.
  4. Put things back where you found them.
  5. Clean up your own mess.
  6. Don’t take things that aren’t yours.
  7. Say you’re SORRY when you HURT somebody.
  8. Wash your hands before you eat.
  9. Flush.
  10. Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.
  11. Live a balanced life – learn some and drink some and draw some and paint some and sing and dance and play and work everyday some.
  12. Take a nap every afternoon.
  13. When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together.
  14. Be aware of wonder. Remember the little seed in the Styrofoam cup: The roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why, but we are all like that.
  15. Goldfish and hamster and white mice and even the little seed in the Styrofoam cup – they all die. So do we.
  16. And then remember the Dick-and-Jane books and the first word you learned – the biggest word of all – LOOK.

Nature’s playground

During an informal social gathering at school, one of the fathers mentioned that his child spent a lot of time on his iPad. The father wanted to encourage his son to spend less time on the electronic device and hence sent him to go and play outside. After a while he was getting worried about his child’s whereabouts, and noticed how he just took the iPad and kept on playing the game outside the house. Although it was funny in that moment how his son interpreted his suggestion, it is also a reflection of what our children sometimes consider as “playing outside”.

In South Africa we are fortunate that our weather allows us to spend a lot of time outdoors. We should explore nature’s playground more often, and allow our children some freedom to engage with what nature provides on the best outdoor playground, and to take healthy risks within reason and without compromising their safety: trees, sticks, rocks, water, mud, leaves, and whatever treasures they can discover. With the festive season on the horizon, we should also consider the needs of our children when choosing restaurants or venues for family gatherings, where they are not expected to be on their best behaviour despite loud music, lots of people in their personal space, unhealthy eating or excessive heat. It is always a good idea to choose a venue where there is an outside space or play area for the children to move freely without hurting themselves or at risk of breaking things.

As parents we want to make sure our children have the same opportunities as others and in the process are at risk of getting caught in the trap of structuring their days too much with a tight schedule of extramural activities. We therefore have to ensure that there is a balance for our children so that they have time to play in their busy schedules during the week and to rest so that they can enjoy life. Even into adulthood, we have to find a work-life balance so that we can be present in our children’s lives as well as our own.

Next week we will look a little deeper into the theory of play and how Dr Jean Ayres worked it into the theory of Sensory Integration.


  1. Occupational therapy practice framework: Domain and process (3rd edition). American Journal of Occupational Therapy. 2017; 68(Supplement_1):S1-S48.
  2. Jankovich M, Mullen J, Rinear E, Tanta K, Deitz J. Revised knox preschool play scale: Interrater agreement and construct validity. The American journal of occupational therapy : official publication of the American Occupational Therapy Association. 2008; 62(2):221-7.
  3. Case-Smith J. Occupational therapy for children. 5th ed. ed. St. Louis :: Elsevier Mosby; 2005.
  4. Kielhofner G. A model of human occupation : Theory and application. 3rd ed. ed. Baltimore, MD :: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 2002.
  5. May-Benson TA, Friel S. The relationship between narrative language skills and ideational praxis in children. American Journal of Occupational Therapy. 2017; 71(4_Supplement_1):7111505135p1.
  6. May-Benson TA, Blanche E, Schaaf R. A theoretical model of ideation. Understanding the nature of sensory integration with diverse populations. 2001:163-81.
  7. Fulghum R, Elders H. All i really need to know i learned in kindergarten. TECHNOS QUARTERLY. 2002; 11(4):32-.ties at home and school: Psychological Corporation; 1995.

[This blog post was written for SAISI’s blog by Stefanie Kruger, a long-serving SAISI board member, ASI-certified therapist and lecturer.  Look out for Part II next week.]