Why Play is Important for Teenagers Too
Studies show that play is just as important for teens as it is for toddlers!
Last week, I wrote about the importance of play for school readiness in toddlers, preschoolers, and kindergartners. This week, I want to focus on our teens. Every year, articles are written about the skills that employers look for in their potential hires: teamwork, problem solving, communication, planning/organizing, data analytics, etc. These skills are critical for a student to succeed in the classroom and eventually in a job. And while therapists and teachers can teach these skills in structured, classroom lessons, a better way for teens to learn these skills is through play.
Play is not just for toddlers and preschoolers. It is just as important to encourage play for adolescents, particularly adolescents with social communication disorders. Of course, play will look different for teens than is does for toddlers. But the skills they learn are the same. Read more about the benefits of play and how parents, teachers, and speech therapists can help their teens learn to play (off of their electronics) to support learning.
Types of play teens may enjoy:
Legos: Legos are a great way for teens to play while learning a variety of skills that are critical for academic success. There are many lego sets that require the builders to follow complicated, multi-step directions to complete an intricate creation, and many of the themes of the sets are highly motivating (hint: star wars!). For teens with social communication disorders, working with a partner to build legos can be incredibly challenging. Parents or therapists can help their teen learn flexibility and teamwork by monitoring interactions and encouraging the builders to give up some control, and choose roles and responsibilities in a respectful way.
Sports: Sports may be challenging for some teens with disabilities. However, sports that require less athletic ability (kickball or wiffle ball) are a great way for teens to get exercise, play with others, and practice skills such as teamwork, perspective taking, frustration management, positive communication, etc.
Board games: Think that your teen is too old for board games? Think again! It seems like every few weeks a new board game comes out that is funny, challenging, and highly motivating to teens and young adults. Games such as Telestrations, Carcassone, Sushi GO, Perudo, Loaded Questions, and more are highly motivating games for teens that often times only want to play video games.
Hanging out: This one may seem obvious, but many teens with social communication disorders don’t know what it means to hang out with friends. Socially challenged communicators prefer to play alone on an electronic device because it is so much easier than actually communicating with a peer face-to-face. But some of the most important skills are learned when teens are allowed to hang out on their own, and figure out a way to entertain themselves. This could be at someone’s house, at the park, at a diner, or afterschool on the school playground.
Benefits of play:
Practicing key social skills: Flexibility, Perspective Taking, and Teamwork
The four skills listed above (among others) are the skills that are most challenging for teens with autism, Asperger's or social communication disorders. Often times, when these kiddos play together, it is incredibly challenging for them to think of other players, allow other players to take turns or change the plan, and manage frustration when a teammate doesn’t perform in the way they expected. Play is the best time to practice these skills because nothing is riding on the outcome of the game. The activity is highly motivating but low in demand. Through play, teens can learn social skills, and then generalize them in higher-demand situations, such as a school group project and eventually in a job.
Developing key cognitive skills: Problem solving, organization/planning, and data analytics
Through play with toys such as Legos and other building materials, adolescents can learn how to learn. For example, when given a challenge to build a Lego contraption with just materials and a picture of the final product, a group of socially challenged communicators were able to work together to recreate the contraption. Through this activity, they practiced looking at the materials and information they have, asking themselves and each other questions, making a plan, experimenting, and making adjustments as needed. They were also able to practice handling frustration and failure, and flexibility when they had to change their approach. These skills are taught in science and math classes in school. However, they can also be learned through play in a way that is motivating and teen-directed.
Developing interests: Another benefit of play is that it allows adolescents to develop interests and hobbies. Often, socially challenged teens have difficulty making and keeping friends, and developing hobbies. Hobbies and friendships decrease anxiety because they increase feelings of independence, self-confidence, and internal motivation to learn and experience the world. Read more about how interests can decrease anxiety here