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6 Ways That Play Develops Self-Regulation

6 ways play develops self-regulation skills

Play is an extremely well-researched area and is proven beyond doubt to be much more than just childhood fun; it is crucial for an individual's social, cognitive, physical, and emotional development. It is so important that play is even included in the United Nations human rights treaty, Conventions on the Rights of a Child.

Amongst the myriad of benefits from play is the contribution to self-regulation development. Skills are developed through the variety of play types a child may engage in: from motor to construction, pretend play to games with rules. As an occupational therapist, I see a number of children who present with 'self regulation difficulties' but on closer observation, they have difficulty engaging in a variety and depth of play types. While there are programs designed to target teaching self regulation skills (which I have found useful, especially with older children), I find play is the best therapy to support a child to develop their self-regulation skills, due to the depth of what can be taught and developed through supported play. Next time you are playing alongside your child, remember you are also supporting their regulation development! 6 Ways Play Develops Self Regulation 1. Building Positive Relationships:

Caregiver support or "co-regulation" has often been hailed as a main influence to self-regulation development. Co-regulators provide comfort, safety and security to an individual, help them meet their needs and learn new skills. Play allows the relationship between a co-regulator and child to blossom and deepen, with the adult modeling new skills and supporting a child to be successful in replicating them. A healthy bond between child and co-regulator results in supported learning, including the regulation of thoughts, feelings and behaviors. 2. Social Abilities:

Through play, children learn that others have thoughts, ideas, and feelings separate from their own. They may begin to show this by having a doll, teddy or figurine express something they are not personally feeling such as tired, sad, hungry, or surprised.

They also start to learn what is expected in various social settings, how others respond to unexpected behavior and how they can respond when someone else acts unexpectedly. Throughout social play, they also develop their communication skills, both verbal and non verbal. They learn how to understand another person's ideas, as well as express their own. Understanding how others are feeling and what the social norms are helps an individual to know what attention, arousal level and behaviors are required within a given situation. Communication skills allow an individual to get their wants and needs met which is necessary in learning to regulate themselves. 3. Problem Solving:

Problems are a natural part of play, and can arise with or without (discrete!) adult intervention. The motivation of the play experience drives children to explore new ways that a situation can be resolved. Problems can be interesting and exciting, inspiring children to be creative and innovative. They provide a great opportunity for play partners to work together to explore all the options. Developed problem solving skills allow an individual to respond to inevitable challenges with composure and confidence. 4. Motor Skills and Planning:

There is growing research that motor skills positively influence cognitive regulation (such as inhibitory control and working memory). Play can help develop a range of motor skills including bilateral coordination, fine motor, balance, strength and hand-eye coordination.

During play, children will also extend their motor planning skills. Motor planning is the term used to describe the creation, planning, sequencing, initiation, and execution of a novel motor task. The ability to successfully complete each of these steps supports self regulation through allowing an individual to modify their behavior. Without the ability to motor plan, an individual could have recognized a problem and how to fix it but not have the ability to execute the plan, resulting in dysregulation. 5. Exposure to New Sensory Experiences:

Play provides the perfect situation to introduce a child to new sensory experiences. Being able to interpret and process a variety of sensory information is important for an individual to regulate across different environments. Play allows sensory experiences to be introduced as gradually as needed, in an environment where the child is feeling safe and calm. New sensory experiences can be paired with familiar ones, in a fun, playful manner with the child in control of the duration and intensity of the sensory input. 6. Emotional Understanding:

Through play a child will both experience and act out a variety of emotions, and learn how to regulate or express the depth and intensity of these emotions. They may feel or pretend through characters the emotions of joy, disappointment, excitement, annoyance, amusement, boredom or anger. Learning to recognize, name, and incorporate these feelings into play helps a child to regulate their emotional responses outside of a play interaction.

To read more about how to promote powerful play, check out Simone's other article here.


Simone Ryan is a paediatric occupational therapist currently living in Sydney, Australia. She is the owner of RocketOT, a blog for all things paeds and OT-related. She is also the creator of The Regulation Rocket, a visual that demonstrates the relationship between environment, personal factors, and occupation in regards to self regulation development. Her passion is to help every child be his/her best self.


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