Dr Kaye Cederman, Research Associate, Trinity College Dublin; Senior Speech and Language Therapist


Over the last year, the Limerick Regional Child Development Team has developed a wealth of information about how play can be used for assessment concerning the child’s developing sensory system, communication, actions, self-care, emotions, imagination, thinking skills and creativity. This article touches on the play-based assessment that grounds my clinical practice as a speech and language therapist within the Limerick interdisciplinary team. I will briefly mention some of the techniques and practices used in play-based assessment and intervention, and the theoretical presuppositions and attendant epistemologies and ontologies informing my approach to this work. My intention here is to present children’s play as a meaningful, experienced thing, as an immersion in an ambivalent realm where meanings circulate across the variety of forms found in any social milieu. In other words, the body of the playing child is at the centre of analysis.

I like to think about how play is a time when children pour their whole bodies into their ‘work’. A thought echoing the deep structure of language as that which concerns nonverbal signs, the infinite variety of knowledges we glean from smell, taste, vision, hearing, touch, proprioception and vestibularity. As adults, we inevitably retain the memory within our own bodies of play that still triggers an imbroglio of sensations; laughter, tears, smells, sounds, taste and sorrow, imagination, fantasy, variation and differences. It is well known that the memory of play stabilises particular sensations encountered in specific locales. By rethinking play not as the trivialised aspect of the work/play dualism, but as concerning meaning-making, challenge, reciprocity, communication, and sensation, we can be aware of the ambivalence of play and how play sparks networks of knowledge that allow us to imagine, explain, remember, and bring into actuality a wealth of singularities.

To explore children’s play as a vehicle of knowledge then, means to consider how the intensity of play eventuates from bodily sensations, some of which might become signs when they are spoken. The sense of ‘embodied knowledge’ is significant here; it allows us to understand play as encompassing practical, active knowledges that work performatively. To understand children’s experiences of play in this way is to reflect current debates around understanding the embodied, experiential, or corporeal dimensions of knowledge and reality. Such an approach presupposes an ontology offering the beginning of an expanded conception of reason and knowledge, one which is not predicated upon the exclusion of ‘the body’, sensation, the concrete or the particular.

Indeed, prioritising experience creates the opportunity to provide depth and sophistication to how we might understand and apply play experience to assessment and research issues. For me, it is important to understand how and why play experiences happen; indeed it is only by doing so that play practices can be made intelligible. Such a view suggests that children’s play is scrutinised for its capacity to impart critically important meanings specifically concerning embodiment, ‘selfhood’ and the limits and possibilities of relationships. And this approach challenges the homogeneous terms, practices and histories of contemporary totalising systems of medical and scientific assessment and diagnosis. A corporeal or embodied methodology also questions the traditional supremacy of the ‘adult voice’, and notions of identity, subjectivity and intersubjectivity, by methodologically prioritising embodiment.

Play-based work with children

At the Limerick Regional Child Development Centre there is an emphasis on play-based assessment and intervention because of our common understanding about how play supports the development of the whole child and is vital for family and pre-school intervention. Such a view argues that play best allows for recognition of each child’s unique abilities and developmental level. As well, our interpretation of transdisciplinary play-based assessment is designed to be modified to meet the individual needs of children and their families. Most importantly, play-based assessment means that the child’s learning needs and the basis of pedagogy and intervention emerge from the child and their family’s own interests, intentions and desires.

Play in our assessment process aims to be open-ended, self-initiated by the child and always different. The child decides what to play with and what they will do with the objects they have chosen. As we know, being able to self-initiate activity in different ways with different objects is a critical learning skill.

When we talk about play we need to establish key words and phrases to describe the kinds of activities that constitute child’s play. For the purposes of this article, play is defined in Toni Linder’s (1993) terms as:

  1. Sensory motor play which includes pouring water, making noises, and repeatedly climbing up and down steps.
  2. Relational play where the child makes objects do what they are made to do.
  3. Constructive play where the child transforms objects into new configurations.
  4. Dramatic play involves the child pretending to do something or be someone.
  5. Games with rules involve the child playing within accepted rules or limits.
  6. Rough-and-tumble play can include such things as running, hopping, tickling and rolling on the floor.

One characteristic of the children we see who are developmentally challenged is how they explore the sensory properties of toys and sensory motor play; how things look, sound, feel, taste and move often dominate their interests. At this level play enables the child to tolerate increasing sensory stimulation and ultimately to increase the range of perceptual experiences the child can understand and from which they can extract information and build new experiences. Learning through the senses is what happens first to all children. As a child increases awareness of sensory information and is able to regulate how to achieve and stop different kinds of information, they are better prepared to play with things that can be experimented with in many different sensory ways.

Once children learn about objects in sensory ways, they are able to generate concrete information. The basic sensory knowledge becomes the grounding of concrete and functional understanding. As we know, sensory motor play predominates at first, followed by more concrete and functional use of toys. These little ones use play to link up sensory and functional sources of knowledge. Words join together sensory motor experiences and the related functional knowledge of objects, which in turn supports thinking about differences and equivalences—ultimately forming the basis for language as a rational tool.

How we play

At the Regional Child Development Centre, a planning meeting is held prior to a play session where the team (consisting of early-intervention specialist, physiotherapist, psychologist, occupational therapist, and speech and language therapist) discusses the activities and materials to be included. Pre-assessment information helps to best fit play materials to the individual child, e.g. if the parents indicate that the child walks, climbs, plays with dolls, stacks objects, the team can structure dramatic play, construction and manipulation, and appropriate motor activities. The pre-assessment planning meeting enables team members to make the most of their observations during the play session.

The team begins the play session by building a rapport with the child’s parents. This is a crucial stage as it signals the beginning of an ongoing professional relationship. We then take on the following roles:

  • The play facilitator who interacts with the child
  • The parent facilitator who interacts with the parent
  • Team members who observe
  • The video camera operator.

The play facilitator develops and relies on nonverbal communication strategies. They need to be sensitive to the child and follow the child’s lead wherever possible. Indeed, the purpose of the play interaction is to get a sample of behaviour that is spontaneous, functional and interactive. The play facilitator shapes the environment to encourage play, provides props, comments on the child’s actions and elaborates or extends the child’s play. This person also facilitates the different stages of the information gathering process. She/he decides when the session should be changed or ended.

Our play area is a large, well-equipped room which has areas of play that are distinctive and easily visible to the child. For example, the arrangement might include a house area, a block area with trucks and buildings, an art area, a sand or water table area, an area of puzzles and manipulatives, and a gross motor area. The room contains a variety of colourful toys and equipment. The house area has tables and chairs, sink, stove, refrigerator, doll’s bed and other toys that lead to the re-creation of familiar activities. Setting and objects are those with which the child is familiar, but new and unusual situations and objects are also included to encourage challenges and problem-solving behaviours.

Analysis: What we learn from how the child plays

Play observation enables the interdisciplinary team to learn about children in a holistic way. Once we understand that the infinite variety of readings of the world is regulated by societal authority and generalised in language, we understand the links between the body, the nonverbal domain, play, language and social phenomenon- Communities control in the finest detail what is intelligible. In any culture or society the wide variety of nonverbal, bodily meanings is constrained and regulated. Play, on the other hand, challenges such regulation by reflecting a broad spectrum of variation, meaning, imagination, critical engagement, sensation and memory.

During a Transdisciplinary Play-Based Assessment it is important that the ‘whole’ child has an opportunity to spontaneously emerge. In our clinical practice we mind map what does emerge, designing a visual map which makes our analysis and intervention plan clear to family members and other professionals. For example, in our map we might have a section about the thinking or cognitive area to gain an understanding of how the child handles cause and effect, person-object-event interrelationships. We might think about the child’s ability to organise input versus a more episodic grasp of reality—how they can make sequences, understand parts and wholes, their attention span, problem-solving ability and concepts of form, colour, number, size, comparisons and associations.

In the emotional realm, we get a sense of the richness of the child’s imagination and creativity, how the child reflects their emotional understanding of the world and how these feelings are processed. We might see the organisation of the child’s capacity to play in an intentional, purposeful way and to make and sustain emotional contact with another. Analysis includes identifying the kind of socio-emotional context the child inhabits. We also get a feeling for how they make meaning of their particular world from looking closely at how a child engages with the distinct modalities: olfactory, gustatory, tactile, kinaesthetic, thermal, visual, auditory and so on. Symbolically we are interested in the child’s sense of self in relation to the world and their overall ability to represent external reality. The interpersonal area reflects the child’s ability to interact and form personal relationships, their understanding of various contexts and appropriate behaviour and ability to adjust to new situations.

From a speech and communication point of view, our clinical analysis constitutes an insightful and refined map of the communicating child, and how their voice, emotions and prosody make meaning within play. There are often examples of communication which may not be evident in conventional testing. In short, the richness, complexity and developmental level of a child’s play, and the degree to which language accompanies play, provide crucial information about how the child experiences him/herself and the world around her/him.

Over the last year, the interdisciplinary, play-based assessments of over 90 children by the RCDC team have gradually taught the team how sensitively and accurately we can learn to ‘read’ a child at play. As a full team (which usually includes parents, wider family and community members, a key worker, others working with the child, and often a range of community-based professionals) we also certainly carry the information about our encounter with any child as a series of processes and performances, in written and videoed form, and especially in our own bodies, our emotions and thought patterns. While the noises and behaviour each developmentally challenged child makes are recorded and remembered on DVDs, adults interacting with any child for assessment or educative purposes also inevitably reflect ‘embodied’ subjective knowledge of them. And we have to learn how to make sense of their walking, smiling, ways of looking, standing, breathing and whole networks of sensations. In other words, to be able to make meaning from how children’s bodies are ‘poured directly’ into play.