Play time is great! SMART Play is better!!

By Hilary Boucher, OTR/L

I think we can agree that these last few months have given us more “family time” than we have ever had before. Quarantine and “Shelter at Home” have made us be creative and re-think our normal family routines. But while being together is great, it sometimes does not translate to quality time. As parents, sometimes we can say we have played with our children. But have we really?

Lucy Jane Miller, PhD, OTR of the STAR Center near Denver Colorado, coined a term called SMART Play. It is a concept that promotes focused and intentional play time between an adult and child. But before you wince at putting one more thing on your to-do list or feel guilty about not putting one more thing on your to-do list, let me offer that it might actually give you more time in the long run. When we truly play and engage with our child, it fills their emotional tank so much more than when we “play” with them while we’re multitasking with social media, talking on the phone, checking emails and texts or attending to 100 other things vying for our attention. When a child’s emotional tank is filled, they are more apt to entertain themselves for intermittent times allowing mom or dad cook dinner or hop on another Zoom meeting without interruption.

SMART Play is an acronym that stands for Sensory Motor Attuned Relationship-rich Time. The goal is to generate positive, meaningful, and fun play experiences through genuine engagement between child and parent/adult. The adult is a guiding partner, keying into the child’s sensory and motor needs and directing the play session according to those needs. For example, if your child is hyperactive, the adult might start with an active game to meet the child’s sensory and motor needs prior to playing a game or doing a quieter activity. (Check out our blog “Back to School: Expect the Unexpected” for sensory ideas). Being attuned to your child may take some observation and detective work! What is it that your child needs right now? What calms them? What hypes them?

One of the keys is to start small by setting aside 15 or 30 minutes. Let the child know that you are going to have play time, you might even call it SMART Play. Let them know how long it will be and set a timer. If you are not pressed for time, don’t set a timer and enjoy the time together! Regardless, notify the child that there are five minutes left of SMART play before you stop playing. Set a timer for five minutes, if that will help them make the transition.

If there are multiple children in the household or chores that need to be completed, perhaps another adult can manage these responsibilities, giving one adult uninterrupted time with the child. Put your phone on mute…better yet, turn it off and put it out of sight! This is play time and we don’t want to be tempted to check that text or email.

Next, choose a play area that is relatively free of clutter and some toys/activities ahead of time. Children enjoy being part of the decision-making process so you may offer them simple choices such as, “Do you want to play with this, or this?” Keep in mind, too many choices can be overwhelming for some children. Keep the space organized by putting other toys out of sight so they will not be distracting. Talk with your child before play begins and make a plan. A simple visual schedule might be helpful. You could take pictures of the toy options and print them out prior to play time, or you could draw simple pictures on a dry erase board. A visual schedule will help them understand how much more time is left and help them transition when SMART play has ended.

Once your child has made an activity choice, try to stick to that activity. We want children to understand that activities have a beginning, middle and end. Begin the activity by helping them open up the box and taking out the pieces. The middle part of the activity is doing it. We might need to modify the task to match their abilities and their attention span. For example, if they can’t complete a 12-piece puzzle, take out only 3 pieces and let them complete that. Each activity should end with “clean up.” Again, this might be modified according to their abilities.

While playing, be careful to not mistake disinterest with frustration. Some kids can burn through a lot of toys because they are not able to figure out how to engage with the toy. They may need assistance. For example, if they can’t put the puzzle piece in, you might lay it close to the appropriate spot and let them slide it in, giving them the satisfaction of completion!

Allow your child to come up with play schemes and ideas. You’ll be amazed at their creativity in using toys in a different or novel way. Avoid negative talk. Instead of saying, “Don’t pull the playdoh apart in pieces”, you could say, “I like to squeeze the playdoh like this! You can squeeze it too!” Use encouraging and specific words. “Good job!” is nice but, “I like the way you stacked those blocks so high!” is more encouraging because it gives the child specific feedback on their skills.

The ultimate goal of SMART Play is to have FUN! Relax and enjoy the time. If some aspect did not work, perhaps the session was not long enough or there were not enough toy choices, you can modify that next time. Don’t sweat it! We want to provide our child with guided but flexible play. Most of all, we want to be fully engaged and fun play partners!!