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Helping children play - RCOT

Updated: Apr 11

With the summer holidays upon us, many parents will feel daunted by the long days ahead, especially if they’re feeling stretched because of the cost-of-living crisis. Play is incredibly important because it’s how children learn about themselves and the world around them. It helps build their confidence, sense of identity and feelings of connection. But the most important thing about playing is having fun!

Dr Sally Payne, occupational therapist and Professional Advisor for Children and Young People at the Royal College of Occupational Therapists, shares her expert tips about how to make the most of play time with your children this summer. For more information or to find a registered occupational therapist, visit

Children play outside

Top 10 OT tips for play time this summer

1. Play for play’s sake

Play is valuable for its own sake, not just as a tool to promote children’s development. Being playful, laughing and getting lost in the moment is important for children’s health and wellbeing. It helps them manage the stress and pressures of everyday life. Try dressing up, playing hide-and-seek or splashing in puddles. Join in if you feel like it!

2. Let your child take the lead

Allow your children to take the lead when playing. Instead of imposing a structure, let them choose what to play with and how to play. Offer play choices if you need to, but respect their preferences – whether expressed verbally or non-verbally. Giving children a sense of control over their play will help build their confidence and self-esteem.

3. Think about variety

Provide opportunities for different types of play, including play that is creative, physical and social. Screens, whether it’s a TV, tablet, or phone, are an inevitable part of many children’s lives. Set some boundaries, agreeing in advance when they can have screen time and for how long. And whatever the type of play, make sure you join in and have fun too!

4. Go outside

Dress for the weather and take activities that are normally played indoors, outside. Being outdoors helps boost children’s mood and can have a calming effect. Draw with chalks on

the pavement, have a pretend picnic or make a dirt track for toy cars.

5. Get moving

Children’s play often includes physical activities such as running, jumping, climbing, pushing and pulling. Find a space where children can enjoy physical play safely, for example a community playground or park. Take a ball or frisbee to increase active play options and encourage children and adults to play together.

6. Connect with your child

Find time to play with your child and enjoy being in the moment with them. Notice and respond to your child’s playful cues - this will help create emotional connections between you. Playing with other people helps children develop self-awareness, communication skills, and confidence, so have a pretend tea party, build a model kit together or play a traditional board game.

7. Use everyday objects

Toys aren’t essential for play. Use household items and other objects – like pots, pans and blankets – to encourage children’s imagination and creativity. Adapt objects for play if you need to, for example by removing distracting features or adding a handle so they are easier to grip or move. Try using plastic lids as counters for games when smaller ones are tricky to handle.

8. Discover and explore

Give children time and opportunities to explore, take risks and discover things for themselves. Build a den with a blanket and chairs, create an obstacle course using garden furniture or make a marble run from cardboard tubes.

9. Doing it their way

Activities that are playful to a child may not appear playful to others – and that’s OK! Respect children’s right to play in a way that is meaningful to them – and remind others that your child has a right to play in their own way if you need to. Remember children play for fun, amusement or enjoyment!

10. Play is just as important for children with additional needs

If your child has additional needs, such as a physical or mental disability, or is neurodiverse, play is equally as important for them as for any other child. An occupational therapist can work with you and them to make sure every child can play. Speak to your GP, health visitor or school/nursery about a referral.

Dr Naomi Graham, a children’s occupational therapist and the founder and CEO of children’s therapy charity, Growing Hope, offers her practical ideas of activities to try with your child:

· hide an object and go and find it (inside or out!)

· make your own puzzle by drawing a picture and cutting it out

· use shaving foam on the side of the ball

· pretend the floor is lava or there are sharks and you have to get to the other side

· blow and pop bubbles

· put on some music and follow your child’s lead

· make silly faces

· dress up

· have a fast race or a slow race

· try using an object in a way it’s not supposed to be used.

Happy Families


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