Free play is wonderful. With just a little guidance from mom or dad, free play can develop that harnesses your child's imagination and lets their creativity run wild. Most of my OT friends (Occupational Therapists) would also tout the benefits of play that builds on all your senses. I'm a big fan of listening to them (they know their stuff) when trying to make my therapy as multi-sensory as possible.
My daughter recently began to explore the world of playdoh. Because we have carpet indoors, and it's raining like a monsoon outdoors here in the Pacific NW, we tried to keep the playdoh confined to an easy-to-clean location. I grabbed an old plastic placemat and we plunked down on the kitchen floor. With some "Mom guidance" we were able to the keep the playdoh relatively contained while still allowing for some snake-rolling, pancake-squashing, and pizza-slicing.
Tactile play can keep your child engaged for minutes (if not hours!) I know my daughter is fully immersed in her play when her breathing becomes heavy and her concentration is intense. And, although it is hard as an SLP mom, I try to let her experience that play without interrupting or trying to build language too much. Her little cognitive wheels are turning and I can almost see the electricity in her thoughts as little synapses are formed and strengthened. Or, in less "brain geek" terms, she's having fun and learning lots. Later on, we can use our clean-up routine to fill in words for her play.
Tools for home:
Try playdoh for free play, making shapes, or creating letters. It can even be "play food" that you feed to dollies or animals.
A serving tray filled with dry rice or beans is a great place to practice drawing letters or shapes.
Create a sensory "board" or "blanket" with swatches of different materials. Take an old cardboard box, cut off a piece, then attach material to it. Think of things you have around your house: sandpaper, an old silk or cotton swatch, a piece of carpet, a piece of tinfoil...
Use a tub filled with dry beans to hide small objects (animals, GI Joe's, plastic insects, etc.)and go on a treasure hunt.
Water, water, water. As bathtime attests, water is a great tactile medium. If it's snowing where you are, fill a spray bottle with water and food-coloring, and "paint" the snow. If it's hot, use paint brushes and water to "paint" large letters or shapes on the sidewalk. If it's raining for 6 months straight at your house (ahem, are you listening Mother Nature??!) and you are feeling brave, create a mud pie "blackboard" and write notes to each other. If you'd rather stay inside, 2-hour bathtimes with bubbles, dishes, and animals are just as fun.
And last, sand. Sand can be used on a tray to write letters with fingers, mixed with water to make "play food", or "built" into a road or tower. Playgrounds with sand are the best! A group of kids playing in the sandbox helps build social-communication skills, whether your child is just observing and trying to understand the social complexities of the group, or joining in the play. Older kids can serve as great models for your younger child, especially if there aren't siblings at home. (We even have a few sandboxes here in the Pacific NW, and the sun does occasionally dry it out enough for playtime.)
So, pat yourself on the back that you are giving your child tactile playtime when bathing. Have a messy eater? Congratulate yourself, as this is just more evidence that your child is fully exploring their tactile world. Happy Playing!