For children needing occupational, physical, or speech therapy, play-based options can be ideal fit

MORRISTOWN, NJ (Jan. 4, 2024) – “Play is fundamental,” explains Liz Duffy, the clinical director at Springboard Pediatric Therapy in the Morristown, NJ area. “For children, it’s absolutely integral to everything they do. It’s one of their primary occupations.”

Springboard offers play-based occupational, physical, and speech therapy. What makes play-based therapy so effective is that it allows children to engage and interact within the environment that’s most natural to them.

“Outpatient occupational therapy–specifically through a play-based model–is going to look and feel very different from school-based occupational therapy,” says Trish O’Brien, owner of Springboard. “I started this clinic in 2005 after wanting a different therapy model than what I had exposure to locally.”

O’Brien set out to build a fun, motivating, interactive environment with the ability to support children with all varieties of needs. Springboard houses multiple sensory gyms; climbing and suspension equipment; a room of Lycra layers above a soft landing surface; as well as quiet areas for sensory bins, board games, and arts and crafts. Springboard’s rooms allow flexibility for all kinds of play.

The specific activities used in play-based therapy sessions vary widely depending on a child’s age, interests, and goals. In a play-based occupational therapy session at Springboard, children are often completing obstacle courses, engaging in multi-sensory experiences, and acting in pretend play scenarios. While these activities may look like play, they–with the help of a skilled, licensed, occupational therapist–are actually targeting and improving a child’s motor skills, perceptual skills, executive functioning, coordination, regulation, and more.

“At Springboard, play isn’t a reward a child has to earn; the play is woven into the entire therapy session,” O’Brien explains.

Springboard’s speech therapy department also utilizes a play-based approach while targeting speech and language challenges.

“At Springboard, we emphasize functional communication,” says Jordan Masterleo, Springboard’s lead speech-language pathologist (SLP). “Language learning is most successful when it happens in a natural environment during an activity that is meaningful to the child.”

At Springboard, there are no SLPs isolated in a room at a table. At first, it may be difficult for the untrained eye to determine if a therapist is an OT or SLP or PT because everything looks like play. The difference between an OT session and a speech session lies in the therapist’s specific, skilled training and their expertise in making progress on specific goals. During the same obstacle course used in OT, instead of targeting motor skills and the like, the SLPs at Springboard may be addressing multi-step directions, sequencing, self-advocacy, and social language with peers.

In addition to Duffy’s and Masterleo’s respective specialties of occupational and speech therapy, a play-based therapy approach is also frequently incorporated into another of Springboard’s offerings, pediatric physical therapy.

“To encourage a child to engage in physical therapy, we love to incorporate their interests,” says Dr. Timothy Purcell, Springboard’s lead physical therapist. “A child who is otherwise hesitant or scared may readily attempt an exercise or movement when bubbles are involved.”

Duffy explains: “Along with being tremendously effective, a play-based therapy approach also offers unparalleled flexibility. So, we’re able to use it not only across many forms of therapy, but also with almost any child, because t’s adaptable to the needs of just about every individual.”

What sets a play-based therapy approach apart from other therapy models isn’t who the therapy is for, but how the therapist approaches each client, family, and therapy session. An important aspect of a play-based therapy approach is the emphasis on therapy sessions being child-led. Therapists adjust their therapy plan based on each client’s interests and ideas. Another important aspect of a play-based therapy approach is the focus on parent education. Parent education often centers around encouraging parents to pause their focus on instruction in favor of inspiring creativity, curiosity, and wonder alongside their children.

For parents who wish to monitor their children’s therapy sessions, Springboard maintains a truly open-door policy. Mothers, fathers, and guardians are welcome to observe or even participate in sessions in person or virtually.

“Of course, parents want to know how therapy’s going, and we want them to be able to see,” O’Brien says. “Very often, they’re amazed by our play-based approach. It often isn’t what they’re expecting. They think they’re coming to a doctor’s office, but they instead enter what looks more similar to an indoor playground.”

Masterleo adds: “Parents are often anticipating some type of tabletop session for speech therapy, with the therapist and their child sitting together and simply talking. When it instead turns out that their child is finger-painting or running through an obstacle course, they may have a few questions – but they’re usually delighted.”

O’Brien says: “One of the best things about being a professional doing this therapy is the absolute joy, excitement, and happiness children have when walking in the door for every session. Utilizing a play-based approach at a therapy clinic like Springboard means the biggest challenge is our kids’ disappointment when it’s time to leave!

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