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The Importance of Play-Based Therapy
by Lindsey Wegner, M.S., CCC-SLP
A speech-language pathologist’s (SLP) therapy session can be designed in a variety of ways. When working with young children under the age of five it can be challenging for them to sit at a table for an entire therapy session due to higher energy levels and decreased attention spans. Many therapists will use a form of therapy known as played-based therapy. The word “play” means involvement in enjoyable activities. Therefore, “play-based therapy” involves the use of enjoyable activities to target a child’s speech and language therapy goals.
In order to plan a play-based therapy session, it is important to understand the five stages of play.
Stage I. Onlooker play – watching and observing (under 1 years old)
Stage II. Solitary play – playing by themselves (between 1-2 years old)
Stage III. Parallel play – playing near others but not engaging with others (between 2-3 years old)
Stage IV. Associative play – playing with others but sometimes playing by themselves (between 3-4 years old)
Stage V. Cooperative play – playing with others and will not continue to play without a partner (above 4 years old)
Play-based therapy is beneficial because it helps children:
  • Maintain increased attention towards objects and others
  • Improve cognitive abilities
  • Improve participation in therapy through fun activities
  • Build positive adult-child interactions
  • Socialize with peers
  • Progress with their speech and language goals
Different types of play can be targeted in play-based therapy sessions including:
  • Functional play – investigating how common objects work and are used
  • Construction play – building things with objects
  • Game play with rules – board games that have a clear set rules for playing
  • Outdoor and movement play – activities that involve physical movement
  • Symbolic, dramatic, and pretend play – common activities done in everyday life as play
When designing a play-based therapy session, an SLP must keep in mind the specific goals for each child. It is often helpful to plan out a play-based therapy session using familiar objects. The terms “playful learning,” “guided play,” and “structured communicative play”, all refer to teaching a child during structured play activities instead of during activities that feel like “work.” Playful learning is therapy goals while guiding the learning through play.
When interacting with a child in a play-based therapy session:
  • Allow the child to take the lead as much as possible without straying from the overall goals.
  • Avoid using terms such as “say this” or “say that” which can make therapy seem more like work than play.
  • Show the child how to accomplish a task by modeling.
  • Make the session fun and focus on the child’s interest to increase participation.
When play-based therapy is performed correctly, it can help the child make associations with real life events and create lasting memories needed to develop speech, language, and social skills.
Play-Based Treatment: Basic Strategies for Exceptional Instruction. Presented by Meredith P. Harold, PhD, CCC-SLP retrieved 6/15/16 from
The Four Stages of Play by Kay Sikich, Early Childhood Educator. Retrieved 6/20/16 from
What is play-based speech therapy? Is it right for your family? By Jill Flores, M.S., CCC-SLP and Kristy Hirokawa. Retrieved 6/20/16 from

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