Purposeful Play, Repetition and Free Choice

Purposeful Play, Repetition and Free Choice

What is play? There are many different forms of play each with their own benefits. Nothing can be more heartwarming than seeing your child playing happily together with others, be it on the beach building a sand castle, or playing pretending to be good guys and baddies. 

Some types of play consist of:

  • Fantasy play (acting out new roles or situations.
  • Social play (learning to interact in different social situations).
  • Constructive play (making things).
  • Games with rules (for example Simon Says).
  • Purposeful play (developing skills).

Today we will be focussing primarily on purposeful play and a little on fantasy (pretend) play.

Purposeful play is essential to healthy development. Purposeful play includes elements that develop fine and gross motor skills, language, socialisation, personal awareness, emotional wellbeing, creativity and problem solving. Children on the spectrum and those with ADHD tend to shine in purposeful play as opposed to fantasy, social or ‘games with rules’ type play which they tend to find very challenging due to the intricate social skills needed and other changeable factors.

When children are in a particular developmental (sensitive) period they focus on certain activities, games or materials that are relevant to that particular period and need. The child will become completely absorbed in the activity for extended periods of time and once complete they stop on their own accord and appear refreshed and calm – not tired or cranky.  (In the Montessori philosophy this type of activity is referred to as children’s ‘work’ not as ‘play’.) 

Purposeful play, or work, is how children learn. Children have the natural tendency to work, and play, to fuel their insatiable desire to learn. In a Montessori environment specifically, learning is encouraged by providing children opportunities to undertake spontaneous, purposeful activities under the guidance of a trained director, but at home there are many things you can do to encourage purposeful play. It doesn’t have to be elaborate, simply sliding penne pasta onto straws stuck into playdough counts as purposeful play – there is a huge amount of skill, process and sequencing happening in your little person’s brain just doing that (and they just think they’re having fun)!

Children will all work at their own pace and rhythm according to their individual capabilities, but through their work they will develop concentration, self-discipline and mastery of new skills. You may notice when your child is absorbed in an activity they will tend to repeat the activity over and over again. This desire to repeat and master the activity is referred to as ‘spontaneous repetition’ in technical terms. What your child is actually doing is repeating these activities to help develop their focus and concentration – priceless skills they will need throughout their lifetime. This is why it is so important to allow your child the time to repeat and refine their skills in their own time at their own pace without interruption (even  comments such as “good job!” or “you did it!” or correcting them or helping them unless they ask for it counts as an interruption even though it comes from a place of love!). Children will usually repeat an activity until it is mastered. Keep in mind that this repetitive play is different to a child ‘stimming’. Stimming is a repetitive behaviour that an autistic child will do to calm themselves such as hand flapping, spinning something etc.

Free choice is also very important for the development of your child. Instead of telling your child what to play or do next, try having two or three options that you are happy for them to do and offer them the choice. The big benefit in this is your child will become focused and engrossed in an activity that they have chosen for themselves as it appeals to them at their particular stage of development, so there is little need for discipline. On the flip side, if a child is told to do a particular activity, that inner drive and interest is dampened and a battle of the wills may ensue (aka tantrums or your child simply running off!). Giving the child choice will build up their autonomy and self esteem – it’s also great for demand avoidant children (e.g. PDA or ODD.

Pretend Play (Fantasy)

Doing pretend play can be really difficult, boring or arduous for us adults – don’t feel guilty about that! Think about it, we did that kind of playing when we were kids, so for us it’s kind of a ‘been there done that’ situation. But a good pro tip for you if you struggle with pretend play (like I do) is this – ask your child what happens next! It’s that simple.

Example: You and your child are playing dinosaurs. You honestly have no idea what is going on, everything you try and do results in your child saying “Noooo, not like that!”. So try this: You: “What happens now?”
Child: “T Rex jumps on this car and says ‘I’m going to eat you!”
You: “Sure thing” *you jump the T Rex onto the car* “I’m going to EAT YOU!”
Child: *laughs*
You: “Then what happens?”
Child: “Now T Rex chases me and gets me!”
You: “Ok then!”

Etc. etc. you get my drift! Not only does this take the pressure off you to try and think of suitable pretend play scenarios that are in alignment with what your child has planned out in their head, but the big benefit is that this is putting your child in control. Think about that for one second, your child is completely out of control in every aspect of their life as everything is controlled by you as the parent. But, pretend play is one part of life that they can control – how empowering is that! You are building up their imagination, their ability to sequence events, their ability to predict what will happen next, their social skills, their turn taking skills, their communication skills and the list goes on! So many benefits for both them and for you! 

Keep in mind though that some autistic children may struggle with this kind of imaginative play, you may need to stick to role playing everyday life such as ‘the shops’ which is absolutely fine. Keep an eye on if they want to repeat the same script over and over each time and cannot/do not deviate from it. Over time practice making little changes to build their resilience to change and the need to control for predictability. Practicing role playing everyday situations is fantastic for processing events that have happened, practicing for future events (similar to telling social stories) and building communication and social skills. 

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