Purposeful Play


As I am writing this my 4 year-old and his 5 year-old cousin are smashing a rock on a boulder to pulverize anything they can find that seems “smash-worthy.” Is this purposeful play or just regular play? I am going to attempt to answer this both as a mom and as a pediatric physical therapist. It is purposeful play. They are learning about their bodies capabilities as well as their environment. They are learning how tight they should squeeze their fingers to maintain hold on the rock. They are learning what their body feels like as the vibration from the impact travels through their bones and joints. They are exploring concepts of hardness, softness, and brittleness. Of course, they don’t know that, they are just playing!

So, if all play is purposeful, then why do people keep using this phrase “purposeful play?” Well, I feel people are using this term to mean “practice through play” or playing to achieve an ultimate goal. That goal can be educational, physical, emotional, or even social.

Traditionally we think of our children learning in a structured environment; as in during school hours, homework, and tutoring. Most people consider recess and even gym class as a time for “social” education rather than “real” learning. But here is the thing – studies over the course of many years have shown that children learn best when engaged. The part of the brain that is involved in a deeper understanding and recall literally “turns on” when the child is willing to participate.  So, if your child is having fun, and they are more willing to participate, there will be an increased capacity to learn. Therefore, when you ask your Kindergartener how school went, their response usually centers around recess or gym class. It is the fun part of the day that really stuck with them!

As a Pediatric Physical Therapist, purposeful play is exactly what I do all day long, but not for education! You see, I cannot give a child a handout with pictures on it and say, “now go home and do three sets of ten repetitions of each exercise,” like I do with my adult patients. Instead, I teach parents to play with their children in a way that stretches and strengthens specific muscles. It must be fun to keep the child engaged and willing to participate. In addition, the likelihood for follow through at home increases if both parent and child are engaged. Ultimately the purpose of this play is for the child to practice at home and to strengthen, stretch, or move in a way that will lead the child to achieve proper development, gain function and/or prevent an injury.

I teach my parents ways to incorporate this purposeful play into their daily schedule. For example, I often tell parents, instead of just scooping up your baby after each diaper change, grab the child under his armpits and slowly assist him to a seated position. Like a “baby sit-up” that works his abdominal muscles. Or instead of just carrying your baby on your hip as you walk through the house, place your baby face down and “fly” her through the house like an airplane to stimulate their vestibular system (balance system) and strengthen the muscles that work against gravity. Or my favorite, put your child that is just learning to sit independently in the laundry basket. Yep, right in there. Place them in the laundry basket and slide them across the floor. These are all fun and engaging ways to incorporate purposeful play at home.

I also encourage my parents to spend just 10-15 minutes a day with their child specifically on purposeful play that I show them during our therapy sessions. Most of the time this is in the form of a game, activity, or song to ensure the “funness” and increase the child’s participation. Okay, so I realize that “funness” is not a word but it should be!

When your child is no longer an infant, purposeful play is completely different from “guided play.” Of course, it is great if you have time to entertain your child, but it is not necessary. Purposeful play as a parent means giving your kids choices and environments to explore. It can be as simple as having them play outdoors away from screens. And sometimes, just five minutes of pre-work will lead to hours of independent play. Examples for toddlers include: giving the child rigatoni noodles and a string, toilet paper rolls taped to the wall and cotton balls, kitchen pots with a variety of utensils in which they can bang together (insert ear plugs first). When play is not guided your child is given the opportunity to be creative and imaginative, to be a critical thinker, a problem solver, and a self-entertainer.

We chose to keep our kids home from school and do virtual learning this year and I suddenly found myself in the role of a “learning assistant.” I enjoyed coming up with “movement breaks” for the kids to do between virtual classes.  We did things like jumping on a small trampoline while throwing a ball, playing the “floor is lava” game, Yoga, and our personal favorite, obstacle courses. The purpose of this kind of play was simply to give them a mental break. I found that, for the most part, they returned to their learning better able to sit and focus for the next class.

I do find that the older kids require much more planning ahead and engagement than the younger children do. Luckily, we live in a neighborhood full of kids always willing to play outdoors. We are fortunate enough to enroll our kids in a variety of sports. But not all people have this opportunity or option. A quick google search or a good parent blog can help you come up with ideas, but just in case, here are a few purposeful play ideas for older children: practicing TikTok dances, performing science experiments and STEM projects, nerf gun wars, jewelry making, and painting. My kids also love a good board game night. Full disclosure: it’s most likely because we don’t do that very often.

The bottom line is that all play is purposeful! As a therapist I use purposeful play to accomplish therapy goals. As a pretend preschool teacher, I use purposeful play to keep my child engaged while learning. As a mom I use purposeful play to keep my children active, to educate, and to explore their environment and their own capabilities.  I want them to be creative, use their imagination, problem solve and learn through play. Honestly, as a mom raising kids in today’s world my main goal is to raise children that can self-entertain without relying on technology to do it for them. So next time you see or hear the phrase “purposeful play” remember that this does not mean guided play and that it does not always have to require more work for your already busy life. Now you know that all play for a child, even play that is not guided, is purposeful!


Rebecca Allen is a Doctor of Physical Therapy that specializes in pediatrics.  You can find her on Instagram @bekidspt, on Twitter @pt_kids or at her company website at bekidspt.com.

Recent Posts