Play & Learning: Picking the Right Activity

In Early Intervention, we use activity-based learning which simply means we assist families in creating learning opportunities by embedding curriculum items in naturally occurring routines, activities, and settings. So when you sit down to play with your child, how do you decide what to play? 

Picking the Right Activity: Questions to ask yourself

  • What developmental milestone do we want to work on? In Early Intervention, we always work on skills that are important to the family and their daily routines. So think about it, what is important to you? What would you like to see your child doing?

    • To further help with selecting the developmental milestone you would like to address, think through: Is this skill developmentally appropriate?  The CDC offers excellent resources on developmental milestones by age. Definitely check it out if you are not sure what you could be working on with your child!

    • In addition and closely related to the last question: Is this an emerging skill for my child? Your child is not going to go from rolling over to walking. Instead, an appropriate milestone to work on after your child is rolling over might be sitting with support. All children develop at different rates, so while developmental appropriateness is important, determining the next skill in the progression of developmental milestones is critical. 

  • What is the best way to teach this skill?

    • Do we need a toy? 90 percent of preschool children’s play in the United States involves a toy. However, don't let this rule out other opportunities during play. For example, when a baby is learning to crawl, placing a toy he or she loves just out of reach is a great method to encourage crawling. However, you can switch it up by offering a yummy snack (my kids were always motivated by puffs) or simply the smile on your face your arms outstretched as you verbally encourage your child to crawl towards you. So be creative! 

      • If you decide you do need a toy, think through your child's interests. Professor Trawick-Smith (Professor of Early Childhood Education at the Center for Early Childhood Education at Eastern Connecticut State University in Willimantic, Connecticut) found "many of the toys nominated by parents and teachers that were used most often and in the most complex ways by boys. This included items that seemed gender-neutral from an adult perspective. What set the highest-scoring toys apart was that they prompted problem solving, social interaction, and creative expression in both boys and girls. Interestingly, toys that have traditionally been viewed as male oriented—construction toys and toy vehicles, for example—elicited the highest quality play among girls." ("What the Research Says: Impact of Specific Toys on Play") Remember when selecting toys, that blocks, Legos, etc, are not just for boys!

      • In addition, Professor Trawick-Smith gave one rule of thumb for families in selecting toys that emerged from his studies- Basic is better! ("What the Research Says: Impact of Specific Toys on Play")

      • Continue monitoring the effectiveness of the toy. Some toys have a powerful influence on children’s thinking, interaction with peers, and creative expression. Other toys do not. Once toys are selected, teachers can carefully observe their impact on children’s play. Do toys elicit a good balance of play behaviors, across social, intellectual, and creative areas of development? ("What the Research Says: Impact of Specific Toys on Play")

I hope this blog post has gotten you thinking about what you would like your child to begin working on and brainstorming activities and/or toys you could use to begin working with your child on these skills. Going forward in this series we still will be taking a look at how to scaffold learning during play, some great places to find toys, and some of my favorite toys you can use to address different developmental milestones!


What the Research Says: Impact of Specific Toys on Play | National Association for the Education of Young Children | NAEYC. (n.d.). Retrieved January 12, 2017, from

Play & Learning

I am very excited about our new 4-part blog series- "Play & Learning"! Why are we dedicating an entire series to play? Because children learn through play! Learning and play are not two separate activities for the child but instead, inextricably intertwined. I hope you'll follow us as we discuss over the coming weeks: some things to know (this week), how to think through picking the right toy, strategies for using the toys you have, and where to find toys! This is truly a fun topic to explore!

"Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood."                                                                                                                              -Fred Rogers

"Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood."                                                                                                                              -Fred Rogers


Some Important Things to Know About Play

"Play is not some touchy-feely activity."

"Play is not some touchy-feely activity."

  1. Maria Montessori said, "Play is the work of the child." How true this is! We've all seen kids deeply engaged in an activity, putting in their all to problem solve, accomplish a task, or try something new! My 3-year-old son can often be caught furrowing his brow or sticking out his tongue in deep concentration during play.
  2. "Children learn through play" 
    • According to Fromberg and Gullo (1992), play enhances language development, social competence, creativity, imagination, and thinking skills. Frost (1992) concurred, stating that "play is the chief vehicle for the development of imagination and intelligence, language, social skills, and perceptual-motor abilities in infants and young children" (p. 48). (Fox) 
  3. Play develops the "whole child." 
    • Fine Motor: From a baby learning to point, to a toddler learning to turn a page, these develop the muscles in fingers that will soon lead to hold a pencil, imitating lines, and writing letters!
    • Gross Motor: From a baby rolling over to running across the room while holding a book, play leads to the development of gross motor skills.
    • Language Skills- As children explore objects during play, they learn vocabulary (i.e. the names of the fruits & vegetables with their kitchen set). 
    • Social- Children learn to express their wants and needs verbally during play, developing social skills.
    • All of these skills come together, helping develop cognition and the child's understanding of the world.
  4. Play is a very broad term. Regardless, all forms of play are beneficial in the development of a child.
    1. Who? Play may take place individually, with a partner, or with a group. Play can happen with a parent and child or a child with his/her peers.
    2.  What? Play can include toys or be as basic as a Mother and her baby smiling reciprocally.  
    3. Where? Play can take place outside at the park or in your backyard, but it can also take place indoors during bath time, while reading a book, or playing with toys on the floor.
  5. Play is healthy and reduces stress! (Bongiorno) Research shows this and parents across America know it intrinsically. 

Side note for the early childhood professionals out there: We are using the term "play"  in a broad sense for this blog series (includes direct instruction and free-play unless otherwise noted)


Bongiorno, L. (n.d.). 10 Things Every Parent Should Know about Play. Retrieved January 12, 2017, from

Fox, J. E. (n.d.). Back-to-Basics: Play in Early Childhood. Retrieved January 12, 2017, from

Does Early Intervention actually help?

Early Intervention is centered on looking at infant & toddler development with parents, setting appropriate goals, and making a plan to meet those goals, all for the purpose of helping children succeed in lessening or closing the gap with developmental milestones. So the question is- Does Early Intervention actually lead to success? Is it worth the putting in the effort to make the referral? Is it worth the time you spend receiving services? I wouldn't be here if I didn't believe whole-heartedly in Early Intervention. However, let me share some research so you can see what a powerful service Early Intervention truly is-

  • Early Intervention research was performed on a group of mentally disabled children in 1958. This research showed that "the development of sound intelligence depends on appropriate stimulation in the environment." (Cowdery & Allen, 2009, p. 26). This piece of research lead to the formation of Head Start, but also demonstrated the power interventions can have on children with the most significant disabilities.
  • Approximately one-fifth of all infants born annually are at risk for developmental disabilities (Haber, 1991). Of these, approximately one-fourth will manifest significant delays by age 5.
  • Neural circuits, which create the foundation for learning, behavior and health, are most flexible or “plastic” during the first three years of life. Over time, they become increasingly difficult to change. The brain is strengthened by positive early experiences, especially stable relationships with caring and responsive adults, safe and supportive environments, and appropriate nutrition. High quality early intervention services can change a child’s developmental trajectory and improve outcomes for children, families, and communities. ("The Importace Of Early Intervention For Infants And Toddlers With Disabilities And Their Families")
  • Early identification of children with developmental disabilities leads to an effective therapy of conditions for which definitive treatment is available. However, even in those instances in which the condition cannot be fully reversed, early intervention improves children's outcomes and enables families to develop the strategies and obtain the resources for successful family functioning" (Committee on Children with Disabilities, 1994, page 863). 
  • “Early Intervention for a broad spectrum of communication disorders affecting young children can be very effective in eliminating those disorders or at least mitigating their impact on a child’s later speech and language development” (p. 403). 
  • 71% - 76% of children receiving Early Intervention services demonstrated improvement across performance areas, including social relationships, reasoning, problem solving, feeding, dressing, and other self-care.
  • 52% -64% of children receiving Early Intervention met developmental age expectations at age 3.
  • 90% of parents reported that Early Intervention service had improved their ability to help their children develop and learn.
  • Early Intervention provides different sources of social support to the family, which reduces the impact of stress on the family and enhances parent-child interaction and consequently child development. 
  • Well-designed early childhood interventions have been found to generate a return to society ranging from $1.80 to $17.07 for each dollar spent on the program.

Allen, E.K., Cowdery, G.E. (2009). The Exceptional Child: inclusion in early childhood education. United States of America: Thompson Delmar Learning

Derrington, T., Shapiro, B. & Smith, B. (1999). The effectiveness of Early Intervention Services. Unpublished manuscript. 

"The Important Of Early Intervention For Infants And Toddlers With Disabilities And Their Families". NECTAC. N.p., 2011. Web. 15 Nov. 2016.

Case-Smith, J. (2013). From the Desk of the Great Editor- Systematic reviews of the effectiveness of interventions used in occupational therapy early childhood services. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 67, 379-382.

"Proven Benefits Of Early Childhood Interventions | RAND". N.p., 2016. Web. 16 Nov. 2016.