Today we look at the theory of play in the second of a two-part blog post written by Stefanie Kruger, an ASI-certified therapist, long-standing board member of SAISI and lecturer.

At the end of last term, we went grocery shopping to buy a few things for the weekend, when my kids saw the shelf with toys. Usually I would walk straight past it, but we all had a happy holiday feeling and we paused to take a look. The Rubix cubes caught their eye, and they pleaded to buy it with their pocket money which made my OT-mommy-heart proud.

They could not wait until we got home to open it, and before I knew it, they had managed to rip off the packaging and started mixing and turning the blocks. It probably took them less than 3 minutes to go from extreme happiness about their new toy, to getting red in the face with frustration wanting to throw it out the window. It seemed that it was much harder to fix the blocks and to sort all the colours than what they had imagined. Although we try at home to provide a balance between all sorts of fun and games, it seemed that my kids found it extremely difficult to stay calm enough to accept that this was a completely new toy and that they had no previous experience with it, perhaps maybe only previously watching someone else solving it without struggling. There was no instant gratification and there was no undo button as on an electronic device. This of course then lead to my OT knowledge flying out the window, and my mommy-heart feeling all kinds of mixed emotions, being stuck between my options of how to respond to this situation.

Definition and key aspects of play

Play can be defined as “any spontaneous or organized activity that provides enjoyment, entertainment, amusement or diversion”. Play can also be seen as “doing things for the fun of it” and as a result of play, children learn and grow. Play is considered to be intrinsically driven, is often pretend in nature, and focuses on the process instead of the outcome.1Play is a complex phenomenon which wears many faces. To play optimally, players must act effectively and efficiently on the environment. Neumann (1971) proposed three criteria for play: that it is relatively intrinsically motivated, that it is relatively intrinsically controlled, and that play is relatively free of some of the constraints of objective reality. Playfulness, on the other hand, is a style, or approach to daily events and should not be confused with actual play. 2

Pretend play creates the opportunity for children to impose meaning on what they are playing through key cognitive skills such as the ability to use an object as something else; attributing properties to the object; making references to absent objects; using a story in play; and sustained symbolic thinking, such as thinking in another reality. 3Pretend play often creates the reality of “as-if” which can be played alone, or in a group whereby children share an alternative reality, acting as though they are different people in another place and time. Pretend play can be linked to emotional regulation, creativity, problem solving, and cognition; narratives and language; and social understanding. Children with deficits in pretend play may present with difficulty with social engagement, language, and self-regulation,leading to problems at kindergarten and school3.

Imitation, as a critical mechanism of play behaviour, is a primary learning process in child development. Imitation evolves from simple to increasingly complex levels of behaviour. Imitation can be defined as a vicarious learning process whereby intricate response patterns can be acquired by observing the performance of appropriate and significant models.When children elaborate imaginatively upon concrete observed events or models within the context of play, they are exposed to opportunities for acquiring planning skills, learn to delay gratification and regulate impulsivity, and in general engage in activities that facilitate appropriate and adaptive behaviour 4

An adaptive response is defined as an appropriate action in which the individual responds successfully to some environmental demand. Adaptive responses require good sensory integration. Adaptive behaviours can be observed in motor or action-orientated responses such as improved balance or better postural control. Adaptive responses may also be observed in more organised reactions (e.g. better sleep-wake cycles, and better regulated heart-rates) or on an emotional level (e.g. dealing with transitions, or feeling comfortable in the absence of the primary care-giver). Adaptive responses can be observed best when children are actively engaging in meaningful activities. 5

Imitation and mirror neurons

We are all familiar with the expression “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes”. This implies the ability to imagine yourself in the situation or circumstances of another person, to understand or empathize with their perspective, opinion, or point of view. However, there is now scientific evidence that the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes has significant neurological origins and implications.

Current literature emphasizes that when an action is executed actively and when an action is passively observed, the same brain regions are triggered by so-called mirror neurons, a recently discovered set of neurons in the frontal cortex. In imitating someone else, one must convert an action plan originating from the other’s perspective into one’s own. These neurons show activity in relation both to specific actions performed by self and matching actions performed by others, providing a potential bridge between minds.

The discovery of mirror neurons offers a potential neural mechanism for the imitation of actions as well as other aspects of understanding social behaviours and emotional responses in others. In childhood, mirror neurons may be the key element to facilitating the early imitation of actions, the development of language, executive function and the many components of understanding the beliefs of others and theory of mind which contribute to the development of empathy. 6,7,8

Dr Ayres recognised imitation as a strong indicator of the development of praxis. 9,10. Praxis is defined as the ability to conceptualise an idea of knowing what to do, formulating a strategy of the order of steps (e.g. where to start and what is next) and then following through on a motor level by executing the plan on a motor level i.e. doing it.11

Therefore, in order for children to optimally facilitate praxis, language skills and the development of empathy, it is critical that children should be exposed to imaginative play situations where they can learn about themselves and others. During play children do not only learn about how to discover and do new things on a motor level, but also start learning about and understanding the emotional experiences of others, especially their own impact on the environment and their friends.

Play and sensory integration

Dr Jean Ayres defined sensory integration as the organisation of sensory input for use.11A child’s brain is in need of a variety of sensory experiences which is considered “food for the brain”. Sensations therefor provide knowledge to direct the body and mind. A child develops sensory integration by interacting with many things in the world. Sensory integration occurs in moving, talking and playing, and is the “groundwork for reading, writing and good behaviour”. When a child’s brain has capacity for sufficient sensory integration, the child’s responses to the environment can be efficient, creative and satisfying. The human brain is designed to enjoy things that promote development. We therefor naturally seek sensations that help organise our brain. This is one of the reasons (besides e.g. the need to connect and form meaningful emotional attachments) why children love to be picked up, rocked, hugged, and why they love to run, jump and play on playgrounds and on the beach. They want to move because the sensations of movement nourish their brains. 11

“Fun is the child’s word for sensory integration” – Dr AJ Ayres

Occupational therapists trained in using Ayres Sensory Integration (ASI) as a child-directed approach for intervention have the unique ability to tailor activities to the “just-right challenge”, establishing a therapist-child collaboration, ensuring success, creating a context of play, and fostering a therapeutic alliance.12 Using this play-based approach, the therapist promotes working towards a trusting relationship. By expanding on the ideas that the child initiates, the therapist can engage the child as an active partner. Therapists often infuse imaginative play and creative play themes so that the child loses track of time and effort, and becomes engaged in challenging activities that might not otherwise be possible.13

Meeting children on their level

Over 40 years ago, child psychiatrist Dr. Stanley Greenspan recognized the importance of meeting children on their level—developmentally, physically and emotionally—in order to maximize communicating, interacting, and learning14.

We often forget that children are not little adults, and that we have to get onto their level and into their worlds to fully comprehend their perspectives and experiences.

“You can learn more about a person in an hour of play than from a lifetime of conversation” – Plato.

Play vs entertainment

The Oxford dictionary defines the concept of entertainment as the “action of providing or being provided with amusement or enjoyment”, or as “an event, performance, or activity designed to entertain others”. When considering the above-mentioned definitions, it is evident that entertainment is provided by someone else, and that the person being entertained is the passive receiver of some form of amusement. As parents, we should refrain from entertaining our children to the point where they can no longer find the fun for themselves, or make up games without a directive adult or other play-mate. It is good for children to not have anything structured to do. It provides the opportunity to form ideas of their own and try out their plans without interference, even though they might not succeed at first. Although we all need some quiet time to relax, we should also be careful not to use the television or other electronic device as an easy alternative to playing indoors. There are many other games that children can play indoors. Examples may include hide-and-seek, creative arts and crafts activities, board games, dress-up games, indoor sport activities, baking and reading.

Setting up the environment to support play:

The environment plays a crucial role that can impact a child’s play behaviour, both in therapy sessions as well as at home. When we want to facility play, the following have to be considered9,12:

  • Appropriate peers, toys and materials that are likely to trigger a child’s interest;
  • An agreement between adults and children that they are free to choose from the above available materials and peers;
  • Adult behaviour that is minimally intrusive or directive;
  • A friendly atmosphere where children can feel and comfortable to explore and engage; and
  • Choosing a time that reduces the likelihood of the children feeling hungry, tired, ill or other types of bodily stress.

Activity ideas

Sensory-motor play-based activities may help families to enjoy weekends and holidays to the fullest. With the summer holidays in mind, here are some fun activity ideas to promote play while on holiday, whether you are away or at home13,15:

  • Jumping on a trampoline
  • Roller skates / blades
  • Bicycle, tricycle, or scooter games
  • Jumping or climbing in and out of inner tubes
  • Running and climbing activities such as on jungle gyms or playground equipment
  • Playing in sandboxes or on the beach with buckets and spades, or burying their body parts under the sand
  • Swimming
  • Horse riding
  • Drawing with chalk on the driveway or paving
  • Making a fort or a house with cardboard boxes and blankets
  • Pulling each other on towels, or in boxes
  • Going down sandy or grassy hills in or on a cardboard box
  • Various ball games e.g. soccer, volley ball, tennis, table-tennis, mini-golf, swing ball
  • Hop-scotch
  • Rock-climbing
  • Going camping (real or pretend)
  • Baking
  • Playing shopping and dress-up games
  • Having a music show
  • Pillow fights
  • Squeeze or walk on bubble wrap
  • Paint
  • Use toilet rolls, empty boxes and other empty containers to build things
  • Swinging, making roly-polys
  • Go down super-tubes
  • Create and complete obstacle courses
  • Hiking with a backpack
  • Boardgames e.g. chess, scrabble, Monopoly, Pictionary, hangman
  • Keeping a holiday diary (writing and drawing pictures)


Children may also be involved in and assist with household chores:

  • Writing the shopping list
  • Pushing the trolley
  • Looking for the items on the shelves
  • Unpacking and sorting the groceries
  • Assist with cooking, planning the menu and setting the table
  • Sweep, vacuum, mop, dust, empty the rubbish bin
  • Packing and unpacking the dishwasher
  • Washing the car and/or dog
  • Mowing the lawn, raking leaves
  • Gardening
  • Wrapping gifts, writing cards



So, to get back to the Rubix cube dilemma, needless to say we had to take a break for a while. When everyone was feeling better, we had a look on the internet for “how to solve a rubix cube” videos.

Luckily, we also live in an era where information is at our fingertips which were not available in the “old days” when we were growing up. Thankfully, their loving father enjoys solving these kinds of puzzles. Before the weekend was over, both Rubix cubes were solved, and my children could practice simpler patterns and experienced small victories of solving one colour.

It should however be noted that when they became frustrated with not being able to solve the Rubix cube instantly in the car, it was a trigger or outlet for sensations and emotions that built up during the course of the day. It was in fact the “end-of-the-school-day-meltdown” at lunch . On their last day of school, they had to be there at 6am for a special event with a radio station. There was lots of excitement, loud music and various sweet things to eat. Then when the morning show event of the day was in full swing, the sun was hot and reached upper 20°C temperatures before noon. This background context provided some insight as to why my children were not ready (mentally and otherwise) to deal with the challenges their new toy posed. It was not a good time to try and solve a difficult puzzle after a busy and hot morning. It is critical for us as parents to remember that children should be in the right state of mind and in the right place to be open to new challenges, play nicely and have fun. Choose the right place and time when children are not tired, hungry, sick or overstimulated from other events for optimal play to take place.

Play is not a distraction from important work, play IS the important work of children with many benefits. There is a critical impact on their overall development when the possibilities of play are absent or limited. Let’s slow down in our daily routines, and allow children to play and have fun like we used to, so they can build memories, skills and meaningful relationships. And of course, remember the sunscreen.


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