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"All You do is PLAY!": Tips to Never Hear This Again

Are you an SLP and have heard any of these statements?

  • You have the best job - all you do is play!

  • Are you really working? All you do is play?

  • Will my child improve? All you do is play!

Over my thirteen-year career, I have heard these statements many times! My response used to be: kids learn through play. Unfortunately, that didn’t seem to be enough to get ‘buy-in’ from teachers and parents. I want to share with you FIVE tips you can use the next time someone inevitably tells you that all you do is play!

1) VALIDATE THEIR FEELINGS: Listen to parents!! They love their child and are advocating for them. Listen to their concerns! Ask them what they are feeling and why. Quite often, their concern isn't the playing - it is that they don't know HOW you are targeting speech and language goals in play.

2) EMPOWER PARENTS: Using play allows you to show parents that you can work on speech and language skills with ANYTHING and ANYWHERE. I like to explain that using objects in therapy that families have at home gives families ideas on how to help their child at home.

3) BE PROACTIVE: Explain your play-based therapy approach during your first (or second) meeting with parents. Use an anecdote from your own experience that demonstrates how powerful play can be. 

4) CLARIFY EXPECTATIONS: Before each session, ask parents what they are expecting to see during the session. Asking parents before you begin allows you to modify your therapy activities as needed. Alternatively, ask at the end of the therapy session, and make changes before your next therapy session. Feel free to share your goals for each session! By keeping communication consistent, you reduce the chance of parents questioning your therapy approach. 

5) MODEL AND ENCOURAGE: Narrate and model what you are doing in therapy. Discuss what goals you are working on and how you are targeting them in play. Explain to parents what you are doing and why you are doing it. Encourage parents to ‘jump in’ and give it a try! Asking parents to be active during the session helps build their confidence and empowers them to work on speech and language skills at home. 

6) STATE THE RESEARCH: Learning occurs faster when learning occurs in a natural environment because the content has more meaning to the child (Fisher, Hirsh-Pasek, Newcombe, and Golinkoff, 2013)1. I like to give parents this example. I ask them which of the following two scenarios would be more meaningful to a child when teaching the ‘snake sound’ (i.e., s).

The first activity experience is play-based. You give the child spoons, a pot, and some play food and ask them to make soup. You practice the words’ soup’, ‘some’, and ‘stir’, when they occur naturally during play.

The second activity is adult-directed. You show the child flashcards with a variety of “snake” words and ask the child to label the items. 

Most parents then realize that the play-based activity is more meaningful to the child because the child is actively engaged, rather than being a passive learner. 

7) BONUS TIP (Use at your discretion): Last but not least, sometimes I lighten the mood and ask, “what do you expect us to do, algebra?”. This statement often gets a laugh, and parents realize that play is serious business for children! 

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1 Fisher, K. R., Hirsh-Pasek, K., Newcombe, N., & Golinkoff, R. M. (2013). Taking shape: Supporting preschoolers’ acquisition of geometric knowledge through guided play. Child Development, 84, 1872- 1878. doi:10.1111/cdev.12091 


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