Simple Strategies for Learning to Play With Your Child

This past March, after many years of struggle and turmoil in our family, we finally discovered my four year-old son, Tommy, has Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). In her book, No Longer A SECRET, Dr. Lucy Jane Miller describes  SPD, “…in simple terms, is difficulty taking in and interpreting sensory information so that an appropriate response can be generated.” When we finally received his diagnosis, it was comforting to have a name to the silent chaos that had wreaked so much havoc on our family. At the time, my husband and I were overwhelmed and confused by the complexity of the disorder; but we knew, without question, we would do whatever we needed to do to help our son. On Easter Sunday, during a conversation with a family member, I learned that her good friend had a child with SPD and had found tremendous support and success at The Sensory Therapies and Research (STAR) Center in Denver, Colorado. The minute we arrived home that evening I did as much research as I could on The STAR Center and called to set up a phone appointment the following day. A few months later we walked through the doors of The STAR Center for our eight-week intensive therapy program. It was the beginning of a journey that has given us more help and hope than we could have ever dreamed of for our son.

Me and my son, Tommy, at The STAR Center in Denver, Colorado.

After Tommy’s initial evaluation we learned that he struggled specifically with a subtype of SPD called Dispraxia, which Dr. Lucy Jane Miller explains in her book, Sensational Kids as, “…difficulty translating sensory information into physical movement, unfamiliar movements, or movements with multiple steps. Dispraxia can manifest as problems in gross, fine, visual, or oral-motor movement. Often there is a combination of these, and any of them may be dominant.”

We learned very early on just how much our son’s entire world was affected each and every day by his struggles with SPD and Dispraxia. He was not only having trouble emotionally and socially, throughout his life he has always had issues with food and eating. When he was finally diagnosed this past March he was down to about five foods he would actually put in his mouth and the list was dwindling fast. It was gut-wrenching as a parent to imagine how out of control he must have felt as a child not knowing how to adequately express his frustrations and ask for the support he needed.  When we arrived at The STAR Center in June we were broken, exhausted, and quite frankly, desparate for help.

Within the first week we received more answers and support than we could have ever imagined. We quickly learned that with a lot of work, patience, and some life-long adjustments, our family could now live a sensory lifestyle to provide Tommy with the support he needs to live each day with success. Tommy worked tirelessly for eight weeks with two therapists, one for occupational therapy and another for feeding therapy. My husband and I received constant education and feedback on how to parent our child a little differently in order to keep his world regulated. Some of the tools were specific to young children with SPD and feeding challenges.  In retrospect, I believe all parents can benefit from some of the strategies and effortlessly incorporate them into their every day life. Sometimes even the smallest changes can make the biggest impact, and I found this to be most evident with regard to play.


I know what you may be thinking. Play? I know how to play with my child. The last thing I need is some other mom telling me how to play with my child, right? Stay with me. It wasn’t until I actively engaged in the following strategies that I truly learned how the smallest changes in my words and actions would forever enhance and enrich the way I play with my children.

Just Play

If you would have asked me three months ago if I knew how to play with my son I would have said, without question, yes! But in reality, my husband and I had no idea that our method of playing with him was actually causing him frustration and anxiety. I can think of countless times I would subconsciously over-think and over-direct his activity and prompt Tommy with ideas and thoughts for play that were not his own. In addition, whatever amount of time my husband and I would spend together playing would often start off with all good intentions, but then come to a screeching halt with something like, “Mama will be right back sweetie, I just have to switch the laundry,” or “One second honey, daddy has to read an email.” Sound familiar? Sadly, it’s the reality in which we live and there are simply not enough hours in the day for any parent to engage in active play with their child for long without an interruption. If only for a moment, remember this, just play WITH your child, meaning let them direct your play and follow their lead. If he says, “Mom you be Mrs. Claus and I’ll be the elf, he means it literally, so go with it. Support his excitement and stay connected! If your not sure what exactly your child wants you to do, try imitating what he is doing as opposed to making up your own version of the story.

You CAN!

One of my favorite tools I took away from our therapy can be summed up in two simple words. You CAN! I never realized how often I would make requests to Tommy in the form of a question. “Tommy, can you please go clean up your play room? Can you please eat your waffle?” What do you think his answer was every single time? “No.” Let’s be honest, he’s four years old and I don’t think I really expected anything less; but what I didn’t realize is how a simple word switch from “CAN you?” to “You CAN!” would make a huge impact in his overall confidence in his abilities.

In her article Key Phrases for Creating A Positive Feeding Experience, Dr. Kay A. Toomey, Ph. D. states, “The you can phrase implies confidence that our child can do the task being shown to them. It avoids the interruption of asking a question because it is a statement instead. If they reply with, ‘No, I can’t’, you can just say “when your ready, you can!”

We have found the most success in our home by giving our son two choices while using “You CAN” phrases. For example, “You can do this or that.” It gives him control of the situation, challenges him to make decisions, and empowers him. In the home, at school, or at play, these words are true no matter the age of your children. I challenge you to start today, and make the switch to “You CAN” and I can guarantee you will see a difference!

What’s Your Plan?

This tool has not only helped us in our play, but also in our every day activities. Dispraxia often affects Tommy’s ability to accurately describe what it is he would like to do with regard to play. Whenever we challenge him to tell us his plan of action it encourages his brain to connect-the-dots when planning out a series of actions. I believe whenever a moment arises that challenges a child to think through and plan anything, it’s a plus! So the next time your playing with your child simply ask, “What your plan?” It puts your child in control of the play and allows you to support in whatever way he or she desires.


Although I know it can be challenging at times, I encourage you to take a moment each day to disconnect with the outside world and just play with your children. Your uninterrupted presence alone is critically important and will make a world of difference in the quality of your play experience. Be present. Gaze deep into your child’s eyes and listen as their imagination takes flight. The laundry will get done and that email can wait. Before you know it, you’ll blink and your child’s precious young spirit will grow up and be out the door to begin their next chapter as an adult. These are moments that you will never get back so treasure them. Now what are you waiting for? You CAN do it! Go play!

Christin is a wife who is desperately learning to cook for a husband who LOVES to cook. She’s the mother of big brother T & little sister C and two yellow labs, Duke & Delta. Christin is the middle sister of three girls who are the best of friends and talk a million times a day. She was born in Houston but grew up in San Antonio. Christin likes to say she’s Texas born but SOONER bred. After graduating from the University of Oklahoma with a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism, she returned home to San Antonio in February 2006, where she met her husband just a few weeks later. She has always had a small crush on photography but over the past few years it has developed into a love affair. In her spare time she loves to photograph and write about her little world on her blog Growing Up Gish!


  1. What a blessing that you found the help your son needed. I love your tips for playing with our kids. I know mine adore it when play with them and we can have fun and be silly together. They crave it and they love it.

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