Canadian Association of Occupational Therapists

The importance of play for children

Without fun or pleasure there is no play according to Francine Ferland, a professor in the Occupational Therapy Program at the University of Montreal and a leading researcher on play and its impact on a child’s development.

“Play both reflects and stimulates development in a child,” explains Francine. “For example, if you were to observe a child building a tower of blocks, you could evaluate his dexterity and coordination, cognitive functions such as cause and effect, how he expresses feelings such as frustration or success, and even social skills by his ability to wait his turn if building the tower with others.

Occupational therapists use play therapeutically for children with physical and/or intellectual difficulties. The Ludic Model¹ developed by Francine is based on play and uses a positive approach whereby the children’s strengths are used to build on their weaknesses. “In therapy the child chooses the activity, leaving the occupational therapist with the challenge of quickly evaluating the activity and adapting it in order to meet the child’s therapeutic goals,” explains Francine. Using play helps the therapist to consider the many different aspects of the child rather than focusing on only those areas where there are problems. Occupational therapists always try to look at the different aspects of the child in therapy which is precisely the aim of the holistic and dynamic approach of the Ludic Model.

It is important to understand that play and a play activity are not the same thing. Play relies more on the child’s attitude than on the activity. “For example, if a child is eager to play and is having fun completing a puzzle, than it is considered play,” Francine clarifies.

When a parent asks what toys to buy for a child, an occupational therapist will ask the parent where the child is developmentally. They will then recommend toys that will help the child to advance in his weaker areas or to develop skills that his other toys do not stimulate. For example, if the child is lacking social skills, the parents could provide toys that the child could choose from that would require other children’s participation, such as board games. Or, if the child’s toys are purely motor or physical such as a bike, suggestions for more imaginative toys could be given.

Francine also wishes that all parents would discover the importance of play in their children’s lives, whether the child has a disability or not. In her book Et si on jouait? Le jeu chez l’enfant de la naissance à six ans² published this year, she encourages parents to observe their children at play and discover new characteristics. Parents who take time to just play with their children find it’s a wonderful way of interacting with them.

“Play can also be an anti-stress agent for parents. When they play, they can forget their troubles and be creative and original with their children,” explains Francine who is currently writing a similar book for grandparents. “It’s also easier on the children when play is part of their daily lives. Rather than being told to wash their hands all the time, think about how they would feel if their parents said they should try the magic bar that will erase all the dirt on their hands?”

Play is an occupation that enhances our quality of life. Play and an attitude of playfulness can make everyone’s life more interesting and enjoyable.    — Vanessa Ong

Francine Ferland can be contacted directly by e-mail at: Francine.Ferland@UMontreal.CA

¹ Ludic means pleasure in English and the reference for the Ludic Model is Play, Children with Physical Disabilities and Occupational Therapy: The Ludic Model, written in 1997 and available from the University of Toronto Press, or by e-mailing:

² Et si on jouait? Le jeu chez l’enfant de la naissance à six ans was published in 2002, in Montreal by Éditions de l’Hôpital Sainte-Justine.

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