Play Based Therapy

You may be wondering why your child’s speech therapy sessions look like they are just playing. Play is a very natural context for children. The way children play reflects the way they internalize various aspects of the world around them, including various rules, objects and roles. In particular, the development of symbolic play, or the use of objects as symbols which represent other things, facilitates the development of abstract thinking – a skill that is necessary for language development. An example of symbolic play would be a child using a block as a symbol for a car, pretending to drive it around. Through play, even children at a very young age can learn to navigate the world around them.

What is play-based therapy? 

Play-based therapy involves the use of a variety of materials such as games, toys and activities which are enjoyable for children in order to target a child’s unique speech and language therapy goals. This therapy technique allows the child to progress with their speech and language goals in the most natural context possible, while also maintaining a fun and positive environment.

Why do we use it?

Play can be used as an extremely insightful assessment of a child’s verbal and nonverbal linguistic abilities, as well as an invaluable therapy technique. It provides useful information about how the child learns best, while building off of the subset of skills the child already has. Play-based intervention increases the child’s motivation to participate in the session, and significantly increases the amount of opportunities to learn. The increased participation and interest in the session help facilitate an overall positive therapeutic environment and relationship between the speech therapist and the child, which is essential to any intervention method.

What does it look like?

Play-based therapy looks exactly how it sounds – like play! It is child led, meaning the child initiates the play and the speech-language pathologist follows the child’s lead. The session is centered around materials and activities which the child is interested in, and the child’s goals are incorporated in the session through structured play. The clinician models play behaviours, gestures, and words according to each child’s unique speech and language goals. Communicative temptations are also used during sessions. Providing communication temptations involves using strategies which encourage the child to make eye contact, gesture, or vocalize in order to complete a task. For example, putting some toys out of reach of the child require that they request the toys from you. By increasing communicative temptations, the number of communication opportunities is increased, encouraging the child to interact with the clinician.

What are the benefits?

Play-based therapy has a wide variety of benefits, including progress towards speech and language goals through increased opportunities for gesture, vocalizations and word use.While expressive language skills are enhanced, receptive language skills, or understanding language and the meaning of words, can also be increased through play-based therapy.The child-initiated aspect of this technique ensures that there is an increase in the motivation to learn, as well, meaning the child participates more actively in their learning. Since the session involves shared attention between the child, the clinician, and the materials/activities being used (also known as joint attention), play-based therapy helps to increase social and emotional skills, and also helps teach self-regulation as the child interacts with a communication partner.


References: Paul, R., Norbury, C., Gosse, C., & Paul, R. (2018). Language disorders from infancy through adolescence: listening, speaking, reading, writing, and communicating. St. Louis, MO: Elsevier.