How Children Develop Physically Through Play

Playtime isn’t just for fun! From singing to your baby to pushing cars with your preschooler, there are all kinds of ways that play engages and develops physical and sensory skills. We asked a couple of our favorite pediatric occupational therapists to share some of the secrets to productive play for healthy littles.

Meet our experts:

Jillian Borzain, MSOT, OTR/L is a pediatric occupational therapist and feeding therapist, registered and licensed in Rhode Island. Jillian is currently working in Early Intervention with infants, toddlers, and their caregivers using a holistic, strength-based approach. 

Kira Bender, MS OTR/L is a pediatric occupational therapist in Los Angeles. Check out her sensory kits and follow her on Instagram @herewegrowkids.

Wait, doesn't "occupational therapy" have to do with jobs? How can it help kids?

Jillian: Great question! Occupational therapy (OT) is a unique healthcare profession that provides skilled intervention to promote development, health, and wellbeing to individuals across the lifespan. Pediatric occupational therapy practitioners work with children, caregivers, and teachers to achieve participation and independence in all activities of daily life that are purposeful and meaningful (aka, their daily “occupations”!).  

Kira: In pediatric occupational therapy, we often work on fine motor skills, visual motor skills (like hand-eye coordination), and emotional and sensory regulation. Some OTs have certification in areas like feeding or sensory integration, which means they have special training to serve clients with challenges in those areas.

How is play integrated into pediatric OT? How do parents participate?

Kira: Pediatric OT is ALL about play! Occupational therapists strive to make our interventions client-centered and occupation-based. Simply put: Is this activity something my client wants to do? Is it meaningful to them? Since children are driven by play, all day every day, it is the best way to connect with and treat our clients. 

Jillian: What I love most about occupational therapy is that it is fun! By assessing needs and challenges, occupational therapists can find fun ways to practice these areas of need without the child even realizing it through play!  As parents and caregivers are their child’s BEST and first teachers, they are key for continued progress and development!  

I know that things like tummy time are important for my baby's development. Why? How do I integrate them into our day?

Kira: Infants learn best through exploring their environments. This may sound strange if your baby is still learning to hold her head up, but she can still explore through her senses! Babies spend a lot of time on their backs, while they're sleeping, in a car seat, or stroller, so tummy time gives them a chance to stretch out and use their muscles in a different way. 


Tummy time and floor play help increase an infant’s muscle strength that is essential to help achieve future higher-level milestones such as gross motor skills (rolling, sitting, crawling, walking, balance) and fine motor skills (bringing hands together, reaching, grasping, manipulating objects). Additionally, play on the floor can provide other benefits such as promoting success with hand-eye coordination, visual perception, self-awareness, cognition, sensory-processing, and oral motor skills, including speech and feeding.

A play mat is the most versatile and essential product that you can use while playing with your child! A mat like the Ruggish will help foster your baby’s development as it is a safe and flat surface. A flat surface will allow your baby to fully move their body, whereas infant positioners (such as chairs, pillows, bolsters, loungers) can restrict your baby’s freedom of movement.  When babies spend time in different positions on play mats, it can help prevent any tightness of the neck or flat spots on their head. As tummy time strengthens the neck, it can in turn positively impact the throat, mouth, and tongue for future oral function, including speech and feeding.  An easy way to integrate floor play on a play mat into your day is to incorporate it before or after frequently occurring daily routines, such as diaper changes, nap time, or before feedings.  It can be challenging in the beginning, but with time, it will be easier to help your baby to tolerate longer times on the floor.  When your child is communicating that they need a break from tummy time, you can simply tuck one arm under their chest and roll onto their side and back to help teach them the skill of rolling.  

I want to play with my baby/toddler/preschooler, but once I get down on the floor with them I don't know what to do. How can I engage in play with my little one?

Kira: Sensory play is a great way to connect with little ones of all ages — and I'm not just talking about multicolored rice! Think about your senses and how you can explore them with your child - put on some soft music, look at a book, splash in a bathtub, and observe. Talk about what you are experiencing and ask age appropriate questions: "I see the flowers in the book... there are so many beautiful colors! What do you see?" "I just love this song, it makes my body feel calm and relaxed. What song do you like?" This activity helps your child be more "tuned into" their body and the world around them.

Jillian: As they get older, give your baby a little physical space to encourage them to roll, pivot, crawl, and explore on their own to promote development.  You can place different toys around them in a circle on the playmat to encourage movement in all directions. Toys that provide sensory feedback (textured surface, make a noise, colorful, light up) will all be highly motivating. For older toddlers and preschoolers, you can incorporate the Ruggish as a safe padded surface during obstacle courses, race toy cars on the play-map, blow bubbles, or as a comfy spot to read a book or complete puzzles and shape sorters! You can use painter’s tape on the playmat to make your own hopscotch as well. 

How do I know if my child would benefit from OT? What do I do if I suspect they would?

Kira: If your child seems to struggle with fine motor skills (using their hands and fingers), has difficulty regulating their emotions, has difficult putting together a "motor plan," has sensory challenges that affect their everyday life (sensitive to touch or sound, appears overly clumsy, has a tendency to "play rough"), compared to their peers, they may benefit from occupational therapy.

Jillian: If you have concerns about any of the above areas, you can ask your pediatrician to refer you to a local occupational therapist for an assessment.  Additionally, all states have an early intervention (EI) program that supports caregivers with infants and toddlers under the age of 3 at no cost to the family through state or federal funding (some states may extend the EI program to include those under the age of 5 years). OT services can also be included in your child’s school plan to support academic or social needs. 

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