Play was the one way we got our oldest daughter and son to re-focus enough to allow us to help each of them. We discovered the importance of play when our oldest daughter was diagnosed with SPD at two-and-a-half. She began Play Therapy, where she learned to use toys, dolls, puzzles or crafting projects as a way to work through her feelings, how to interact with objects and people as well as how to calm herself down when she was overwhelmed.
Play provided so much more than just a communication tool. It became the core of our family bonding. Our daughter’s form of SPD could be so severe it interfered with everything from what she’d touch (or allow to touch her), what sounds she could tolerate; how, who or what she’d interact with, where she could venture to and even how well she could concentrate, balance or move.
The most upsetting part of living with this disorder, as a parent, was the inability to touch her or even speak with her as her sensitivity levels got so high she couldn’t handle any light touch or even our voices. And her father suffered the most.
When we first brought her home from the hospital, she rejected any form of interaction with her father. We never figured out exactly what it was about him that drove her into sensory overload (eg: his touch, the pitch of his voice, his natural scent, etc.), but it hurt him tremendously.
Play allowed a way for the two of them to make a connection. It taught her father how to get down there and share his own moments with our daughter, even at her most sensitive times. And it gave me a way to connect with my child in ways I hadn’t been able to before. It taught us patience, openness and a new way of looking at parenting. But it took a lot of work in the beginning.
For the first several therapy sessions, my daughter absorbed herself in the play with her back turned to the rest of us and never responded. Brian, her Play Therapist, said it didn’t matter because she was working through things even if she wasn’t talking to us. I didn’t get it. How was this stupid therapy helping her if she was able to act the same way there that she did at home?
Sensing our frustration, Brian asked if he could tape the sessions so he could play it back for us near the end to go over strengths and weaknesses.
“Sure, why not!” we said. By then we were used to being observed, taped and recorded. Boy, what an eye-opener that was.
We were able to see how, even though Jaimie didn’t talk to us directly, she was attempting to include us in her play. In one scene, Jaimie played with kitchen stuff and pretend food. She made tea and said under her breath, “I think I’ll have some tea. I’ve had enough coffee this morning.” (Her father said that almost every morning on the weekends.) Then she shoved a tiny plastic cup at him.
“Thank you,” he said. “I hope it’s Green Tea. That’s my favorite.”
“Green Tea. Yeah.” Jaimie said.
“That was an excellent exchange,” said Brian. “Did you see how her total stance changed when you showed interest in what she was doing without asking a question? That’s exactly what you do in free play. Great job!”
The play therapy route proved to be the most valuable tool we’d come across before that point. Allow me to share some of the strategies we learned and how other families can share in the joys and benefits of play:
Choose an equal opportunity activity: Be sure to choose something that isn’t too difficult for the younger ones, but not too easy for the older ones. And be sure to choose an activity all can participate in and enjoy.
The beauty of play is children can explore and discover how to enjoy an activity in their own unique way. Sometimes all it takes is a small tweak to give everyone equal opportunity to enjoy the same activity.
Permit time for kids to be kids: Play is the only time when kids don’t have to fit into an adult world and when they’re able to make their own rules. Our Play Therapist said that kids should be allowed to have at least fifteen minutes of free play where they get to choose the activity they want to do and be able to play with little or no guidance.
Goofiness required: Part of the fun of play time is the freedom of goofiness. Unless the child’s behavior is so outrageous they could hurt themselves or others, allow him to be as goofy as they want to be. They have to be on their best behavior everywhere else during their day. They should be allowed to let loose when it’s their time.
Grown ups should get down and goof right along with their children. Go ahead! Who cares who’s watching? As long as belly laughs are achieved from your kids, it’s the only audience that matters.
Build self-esteem: There are many things a child with SPD excels at, but she can be developmentally behind in other areas that interfere even in play. The best thing to do is applaud any attempt at what they could achieve. It eases the child from the thinking perfection is expected or that she can’t try something just because she hasn’t done it before.
Always have a cool down time after busy activities: It’s crucial to have a period of time to cool down after doing more physically exerting activities. For children with SPD, where calming down is difficult, saving the quieter activities can help bring their insides back down from speedy to a slow gallop in no time. And a nice deep or joint pressure works phenomenally on children with sensory issues when they’ve had a crazy-fun play time.
Playtime has proved invaluable to our family. So, the next time your kids say, “Let’s play!” throw caution to the wind, let loose and get ready for some serious belly laughs. Those will be the times they will always remember and that you will cherish down the road.