The park or a playground is a wonderful place to have Floortime with your child. These environments provide many opportunities for interaction around a favorite piece of equipment on the playground, like a slide or jungle gym for example, or while taking a walk together through a park, interactions around your child’s interest in flowers, birds, the way bark feels, etc., or just sitting on a bench together chit-chatting about whatever the child is interested in. The playground environment provides natural opportunities for interaction with peers, facilitated as needed for your child’s individual needs. Both the park and playground environments can provide a change of pace for you and your child and be refreshing and fun for both.
Floortime at the park or on the playground follows the same principles as you would use in Floortime at home or anywhere else. It’s important to understand your child’s unique way of understanding his or her world and how he or she takes in and processes information. The playground is likely to involve a lot of gross motor activity: running, climbing, going on slides. Some children enjoy these motor challenges, other children avoid them. Some children enjoy running but not the slides. other children can stay on the slides forever. Also, a playground tends to be noisy and busy, with lots of other children talking and playing on the equipment or running around. This can be overwhelming for some children and they may prefer to stay on the perimeter of the playground for a while or play in the sand. The park setting tends to be more quiet and calm, which for some children may be just what they need, but for other children might not provide the level of activity or sensory input that they crave. You can be creative and find ways to engage and draw your child into interaction in these environments by understanding his or her motor and sensory needs and following his or her lead and interests, just like you would at home or in any other setting.
When at the park or playground, keep in mind the following basic Floortime principles:
- First, understand your child's individual sensory and motor profile. In order for your child to be able to interact with you and/or other children in the playground she needs first to be regulated and interested in the surrounding environment (Stage 1). Carefully observe which sensations, like movement, for example, help your child become calm and regulated and which ones overwhelm her, like loud noises. What gets your child’s attention and helps her focus?
- Second, help your child engage with you by following his lead and interests. Just like in the home Floortime sessions, you want to follow your child’s lead and interests and entice him into engaging with you around these interests (stage 2). Have fun with him as you join him in the activities he wants to do. For example, if he likes to swing, you can stand in front of him and use gestures and/or sounds, like making different funny faces and sounds that he likes (soft or loud or squeaky or using different pitches) as he comes toward you and then goes away from you on the swing. While taking a nature walk in the park, your child might show an interest in the texture of the bark on a tree, for example. You could put your hand between his and the tree and make a little game with him chasing your hand around the tree. Enjoy the activities that he likes to do and make them meaningful for both of you. Connect with your child's affect; help him to connect with your affect. Are you both enjoying the activity? Is he enjoying being with you?
- Third, encourage two-way communication. Getting the flow of back and forth communication going while enjoying each other at the playground or park is as important as in your home Floortime sessions (Stage 3). Because the environments are different and fresh for you and your child, you may find it easier to be creative in encouraging your child to initiate communication and then keep the circles of communication going. While your child is on the swing, for example, you might encourage her to indicate, with gestures or sounds/words, if she wants to go higher or lower, faster or slower, and challenge her to take the initiative. In the park, you can get many circles of communication going around the smell of the tree, the texture of the bark, leaves and acorns around the tree, etc.
- Fourth, expand your interactions and create situations where you have to solve problems together. Once your child is able to maintain a continuous flow of back and forth interactions, then you can challenge him to move up the developmental ladder to Stage 4. The playground and park are great places to expand your interactions you’re your child and create problem-solving situations where she has to take the initiative. You can create a game where you and your child have to figure out how to get around obstacles, like having to go around you or between your legs, to get where he wants to go. In the park, you can go hide behind a favorite tree and encourage your child to come find you or work together to figure out how to get to the other side of the lake. Gross motor games can be very helpful to entice interactions between you and your child as well as with peers. Invite a friend to come along on the trip to the playground and bring a ball to throw back and forth, play chase, "hide and seek", "monkey says", sing songs, etc. While your child masters motor and sensory challenges she will also be enjoying the interactions with you and other children.
- Fifth, encourage imagination and meaningful use of language. As your child progresses up the developmental ladder and begins to use ideas and do some pretend play ( stage 5), parks and playgrounds can offer unlimited opportunities for use of imagination and language. A jungle gym can become a pirate ship or zoo with different “jungle” animals. A swing can become a spaceship or a sailing ship gliding through a sea of clouds. Make sure you follow your child’s lead and interests, letting her set the theme of the play and then become a character in the drama. A peer can be involved in the pretend dramas as well and can offer further opportunities to expand and broaden themes and use of language. Try to encourage the meaningful use of language—words and gestures—during these times. Pretend play in these different settings may encourage your child to express different emotions (e.g. anger, fear, sadness, joy).
- Sixth, facilitate logical thinking. If your child is doing very well with Stage 5, you can now challenge him to connect those emotional ideas together in a logical manner (Stage 6). For the verbal child, these environments offer great opportunities for asking and answering all the W questions, including Why questions. If your child indicates that he wants to go to the slide, you could ask, “Where is it? I don’t see it?” or “Why do you want to go to the lake?” If your child can’t answer Why questions yet, you can give him a choice—good choice first, and a silly choice second so he can’t just repeat the last thing you said. “Do you want to go to the lake because the ducks are there, or because you want to go to sleep?” Be creative and help you child broaden and expand his range and flexibility in all different environments and situations.
In summary, the primary goal of Floortime, no matter where it takes place, is to follow your child’s lead and interests while challenging him or her to move up the developmental ladder. None of the stages on the developmental ladder should be done in isolation from one another. Taken together, these Floortime stages form a way of engaging with your child, getting a continuous flow back and forth communication where you follow your child’s lead and interests while at the same time challenging her to broaden and expand her range and flexibility, use of ideas and language, and to be logical, all within the context of your child’s unique motor and sensory needs. And parks and playgrounds offer unique and refreshing opportunities for parent and child to have fun together while strengthening and mastering all these stages.