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Playtime for Children With Cognitive Delays

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WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Play is such a natural part of childhood. Sometimes we forget that it's not always just fun and games. It’s also crucial to promoting healthy development and maintaining strong parent-child bonds. Child specialists say this is equally true for children with cognitive delays, which can arise from genetic abnormalities, problems in the nervous system, or developmental disorders.

WebMD consulted the experts about how you can effectively direct your child’s play if he or she has any type of cognitive delays.

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Understand What Play Is

As parents, you should understand the role of play in your children's lives. Stephanie Pratola, a registered play therapist and clinical psychologist in Salem, Va., states that play helps children form attachments. As one of the ways that children actively communicate with others, "it's their way of relating. It helps to build the relationship," which is a process that may need specialized attention for children with cognitive delays.

Focus on What Your Child Can Do and What She Does Well

''Rather than focusing on the deficits of your child, focus on the strengths," says Kat Davitt, a certified child life specialist at the Cook Children's Medical Center in Fort Worth, Texas.  She stresses how parents should pay attention to what their children can do and what activities make them happy.

Davitt notes that even if your child has cognitive delays, her play will most likely resemble that of a typically developing child. As a result of socializing difficulties, children who are autistic  may sometimes be the exception. Nevertheless, playful activities are equally important for their development as for any other child.

Determine Your Child's Preferences

Pratola states that even young children have preferences when it comes to play. You just have to figure them out and follow your child’s lead.

Pratola states that it’s important to decode what kind of stimulation is most engaging for your child. Some children like soft, fuzzy, stuffed animals, while others will find hard plastic balls more appealing. Some children may respond to noisy play, while others may recoil and prefer the quiet. She encourages parents to step back and watch your children’s expressions in order to make the distinction.

Likewise, Davitt states that it’s important for parents to be aware and accepting of the fact that their children with cognitive challenges may continue playing with toys that are recommended for a lower age range.

Be in the Moment

Although you may expect your child’s play to work toward some noticeable goal, to achieve something that's measureable, Pratola persuades the parents of children with cognitive delays to think of playtime differently.

"Real play is not goal oriented," she says. Rather, "you present the child with an opportunity and follow their lead for what they want to learn.” From here cognitive development and other benefits will follow.  Your goal, as the parent, should be to foster your relationship with your child and to make sure that you both are enjoying the other’s company. In order to do so, you may find it helpful to present yourself in fun mode, rather than wearing your strict parent’s cap.

To make play time successful, Pratola says you should also set aside specific time for playing. Make it a priority. Easier said than done, but it's important.

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