To play implies a reduction in the seriousness of the consequences of errors and of setbacks. In a profound way, play is an activity that is without frustrating consequences for the child even though it is a serious activity. It is, in a word, an activity that is for itself and not for others. It is, in consequence, a superb medium for exploration. Play provides a courage all its own.
Jerome Bruner (1983, pp. 60–61)
Play, to me, has always been a valued context for observing and supporting growth. This has been important in my role both as a language clinician and as a teacher of future clinicians learning to support children through play, with goals to extend their thinking, talking, and communicating. As Bruner (1983) indicated in the quotation that opens this column, true play is a safe place in which children can learn new things and practice emerging skills without fear of failure, and as a means of establishing courage to address life's challenges. These are themes also explored throughout this issue. Yet, despite my existing enthusiasm for and experience with the topic of play, I found that I had much to learn. The articles in this issue deepened my thinking about play and led to newfound appreciation both for the power of play and for the subtleties that make play authentic. In collaboration with associate editor, Dr. Julie Wolter, I introduce this issue on The Power of Play and Its Role in Developmental Integration. We express our appreciation to Dr. Sima Gerber, who conceptualized it and served as the issue editor.
The lead article, contributed by Peter Gray (2017), is primarily about play by children developing typically but with significant implications for those of us who work with children, and I would add, with adults, with language disorders. Peter Gray is research professor of psychology at Boston College. He has conducted and published research in neuro-endocrinology, developmental psychology, anthropology, and education, and he is author of Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life (Gray, 2013). For me, Gray's article evoked memories of childhood, playing with siblings and neighbor-hood children across a range of ages and in a variety of forms of play. It made me think of Bruner's (1983) point about how play can allow one to take risks and try out roles while having fun, largely free of worry about consequences or making mistakes. And it made me think about play in later adulthood, when one can engage in new activities for the pure self-rewarding fun of them, without fear of failure or of what others will think. Gray clarifies that play is “how children learn to create their own activities, solve their own problems, take control of their own lives, get along with peers, overcome narcissism, and learn to deal with fear” (p. 225). Gray also offers a somewhat scary review of evidence that play is declining in the United States, and he discusses the associated statistics about increases in depression and anxiety and other mental health problems in childhood, making the case for links between these two phenomena. This article has implication for policy makers as well as researchers and clinicians.
In her article, Sima Gerber (2017) emphasizes the integrative developmental opportunities for intertwining play and language. Dr. Gerber came to her role as the issue editor and an author with more than 40 years of clinical experience, specializing in the treatment of children with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) and other developmental challenges. Reading Gerber's article leads to a new appreciation for how social meaning and linguistic meaning intertwine and how, through play, children achieve higher levels of development. I am especially fond of the feature in Gerber's article in which she addresses directly what to do about dilemmas in play, such as what to do when a child seems to be playing too aggressively or too immaturely. Another characteristic of note in Gerber's article is that, despite her vast clinical experience with children on the autism spectrum, when reading her child examples, it is easy to get lost in her descriptions of children as children and not primarily as children with ASD. This article is full of practical meaning and depth.
Gilbert Foley (2017) is a clinical psychologist specializing in pediatric mental health. Dr. Foley is coauthor of a book on Mental Health in Early Intervention: Achieving Unity in Principles and Practice (Foley & Hochman, 2006). Readers can look to Foley's article within this issue to deepen their thinking about how play can help children develop their abilities for self-regulation and for responding to anxiety-producing experiences. Foley's article incorporates a cogent review of literature, with evidence supporting the relationship between play and self-regulation. His article adds to themes of this issue regarding multilevel clinical implications (regulatory, emotional, communicative, linguistic, social) when children are allowed the freedom to play.
Serena Wieder's (2017) article led me to think in new ways about the essential emotional meaning of symbols, beyond their referential meaning, and the role parents can play in promoting children's growth along the cognitive–emotional developmental ladder. Dr. Wieder is known widely for her work as a clinical psychologist who pioneered approaches to diagnosing and treating infants and toddlers with infant mental health and developmental disorders. This has included collaboration with Dr. Stanley Greenspan and the development of their DIR (Development, Individual differences, Relationship-based) model (Greenspan & Wieder, 1997), which provides essential concepts for this article as well. Dr. Wieder's discussion of the emotional themes expressed in play and illustration with case examples has rich implications for parents and clinicians. She also reviews recent studies that are building empirical support for the effectiveness of play-based approaches as intervention.
Many Topics in Language Disorders readers, including me, may be able to trace our appreciation of play as a context for assessing typical development and providing language intervention to Dr. Carol Westby (1988, 2000), along with learning from her about theory of mind in an earlier issue she edited of this journal (see Westby, 2014, for an overview). In this issue, Dr. Westby collaborates with Deborah Wilson (Westby & Wilson, 2017) to provide a discussion of how to combine play, narratives, and early literacy experiences in preschool settings in a manner that is compatible rather than competitive. This includes focus on using language to support theory of mind, mental modeling, and reflection on past experiences that are essential elements of reading comprehension. Of particular value, they share concrete examples of how to build these integrated components into a play-based preschool program for children who are deaf or hard of hearing while emphasizing that the approach is not just for this population but also appropriate for preschoolers who are on a variety of developmental trajectories.
In this column, we can only scratch the surface of the richness of these articles in making the multilevel meaning and essential nature of play apparent. Those of us who spend our professional lives seeking clues to the mysteries of what Gerber refers to as “developmental derailment” in her article, or ASD, or deafness and hard of hearing challenges, or the challenges of poverty, or of growing up in the wide range called “typical” can find much to learn and think about in this issue. That includes remembering to play.
—Nickola Wolf Nelson, PhD, CCC
—Julie Wolters, PhD, CCC-SLP
Bruner J. (1983). Play, thought, and language. Peabody Journal of Education, 60(3), 60–69.
Foley G. M. (2017). Play as regulation: Promoting self-regulation through play. Topics in Language Disorders, 37(3), 241–258.
Foley G. M., Hochman J. D. (2006). Mental health in early intervention: Achieving unity in principles and practice. Baltimore, MD: Brookes.
Gerber S. (2017). Embracing the potential of play for children on the autism spectrum: Facilitating the earliest stages of developmental integration. Topics in Language Disorders, 37(3), 229–240.
Gray P. (2013). Free to learn: Why unleashing the instinct to play will make our children happier, more self-reliant, and better students for life. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Gray P. (2017). What exactly is play, and why is it such a powerful vehicle for learning? Topics in Language Disorders, 37(3), 217–228.
Greenspan S., Wieder S. (1997). An integrated developmental approach to interventions for young children with severe difficulties in relating and communicating. Zero to Three, 17, 5–18.
Westby C., Wilson D. (2017). Using pretend play to promote foundations for text comprehension: Examples from a program for children who are deaf and hard of hearing. Topics in Language Disorders, 37(3), 282–301.
Westby C. E. (1988). Children's play: Reflections of social competence. Seminars in Speech and Language, 9, 1–14.
Westby C. E. (2000). A scale for assessing development of children's play. In Gitlin-Weiner K., Sandgund A., Schaefer C. (Eds.), Play diagnosis and assessment (pp. 15–57). New York, NY: Wiley.
Westby C. (2014). Issue editor foreword: Theory of mind and language development and disorders. Topics in Language Disorders, 34(4), 277–281.
Wieder S. (2017). The power of symbolic play in emotional development through the DIR lens. Topics in Language Disorders, 37(3), 259–281.