Language Delays Part 3 – The Importance of Play

Here are some MORE great tips and teaching techniques for working with riders with language delays! These come from the book “Play to Talk” by  James MacDonald Ph.D. & Pam Stoika Ph.D. Their perspective focuses on the social communication skills side of language development and using responsive communication strategies to engage the child. These posts summarize the basic and most helpful concepts relating to the therapeutic riding instructor. See Part 1 for more background info. If you’re looking for additional tips for language delays, check out the past posts about Speech Disabilities in Therapeutic Riding and Communication Techniques for Low/Nonverbal Riders.


  • the concept
    • the more fun (less serious) you are, the more the child will want to interact
    • adults tend to be all business/goal/outcome focused, which leads to always correcting, which leads to the child not feeling good enough/defensive/anxious/sad and losing their creativity and spontaneity – especially in developmental delay relationships, when parents are frightened by an uncertain future and enter directive teacher mode, frequently correcting the child in the interest of his future, losing joy and playfulness
    • children learn through play: when the adult provides a positive, no-stress, safe place to explore, in which interactions are failure-free, accepting, affectionate, humorous, and downright silly, and the partner obviously genuinely enjoys interacting with the child
    • playful people hold the child’s attention longer, are the people the child chooses to interact with, and are the people who have the greatest impact on the child’s development
  • do
    • play – they learn by playing!
    • be funny – they will remember everything you do that is funny
    • be light-hearted, animated, silly
    • be accepting – accept the child as they are, they are not making mistakes but doing what they can do
    • be affectionate and affirming – let the child see that you enjoy and value your time together; frequently let them know you enjoy them
    • accept how the child is already playing, then playfully join in
    • be more interesting than the child’s distractions
    • playfully show them new things to do in nonjudgmental ways
    • focus on better, not perfect
    • have fun yourself!
  • don’t
    • don’t let them do whatever they want – you can be affirming while still setting clear limits on unsafe/unacceptable behavior, stating your requirements without insult
    • don’t judge, be disappointment, criticize, correct – or they will choose to play by themselves and therefore not learn from you
    • don’t want them to do the impossible
    • don’t choose activities YOU can’t enjoy too
    • don’t ask so many questions – then there’s less focus on the right answers


They suggest a good way to practice: Pick a toy or object near the child and find 5 different ways to be silly and playful with it (not necessarily with the child). For example, take a shoe and put it on your head, park toy cars in it, drive it like a car, etc. that keeps the child interacting with you.

Playing vs. Playing a Game

Note that these are different. Playing is doing things in a fun and playful way, even making a game out of something. Playing a game means there are rules and competition, and not necessarily fun. (This concept brought to mind by TheRidingInstructor).

For the Introvert

I’m an introvert, so at first glance being “playful” sounds like I have to be “outgoing” and performing all the time. But I don’t think that’s exactly what it means. To some extent, yes, you need to be more outgoing, as in animated in your actions and reaching out to the other person. But on the other hand, I don’t think you have to be crazy or overwhelming or inauthentic. The point isn’t to entertain them, but to interact with them. Introverts play too, so be the most playful version of yourself!

Play in Therapeutic Riding

Some thoughts about play applied to therapeutic riding…

Play vs. Goals

Therapeutic riding is very goal oriented. We set goals and objectives and everything in the lesson works toward achieving them. However, play is also very important for learning new skills, because children learn well (if not best) through play! Luckily, riding can be like playing for the child, so it’s kind of already happening in the lesson. But you can also be deliberate in including more play in your lessons, especially to foster language development and social skills.

Incorporate Play

Ways to include more play in your lessons:

  • include games and activities, in which it is natural to be more playful
  • do things in a playful and fun manner, while still working toward the goal/objective
  • designate specific play times to yourself, when you will let the child play and experiment with a skill or prop with limited guidance
  • take advantage of playful moments when they arise by being responsive and following the child’s lead – join in and meet him where he’s at, and you’re more likely to get his attention and show him the next step

Teacher-directed vs. Child-directed

Therapeutic riding is very teacher-directed – we are the ones guiding it. You may need to find ways to let the lesson be more child-directed.

Examples that I can think of:

  • when the rider suggests learning a certain skill, you go with it
  • when the child who normally does not interact wants to play a certain game, you weave it in to the lesson
  • when the child becomes super interested in detangling every knot in the horse’s mane, you let them and show them how to work out the knots or braid the hair to work on fine motor control
  • when the rider wants to play with the beanie baby you weave it into warm ups
  • when using props, let the child  choose which one to play with and give them time do so, interacting with them (pick a ball from the bucket, and toss it back and forth)
  • and so on

Volunteer Interactions

Volunteers can easily get too task-focused as well! (Goal: get this rider to weave these cones. Find the balls. Etc.). Encourage volunteers to be playful and fun (at appropriate times) while still supporting the rider. Create opportunities in your lessons for the volunteer to play with the rider.

Make the barn a safe place to play

Give the child room to experiment (keeping it safe). When they are playing and figuring things out on their own, give them time, join in their play, show them next possible steps.

Keep the atmosphere light. Lessons aren’t just about the skill learning, but the therapeutic environment of just being with the horse, and the social aspect of being with the team.

Use the horse as mediator to play

The horse is the ultimate play to learn partner – they exhibit all the “do” traits listed above: funny, light-hearted, animated, silly, accepting, affectionate, affirming.

The horse is also the toy – the child play with it, learns how it works, you play together with the horse

The horse connects you to the child – it reminds me of Claudine Pelletier-Milet’s book Riding on the Autism Spectrum and how she talks about the child firm being thrown into a relationship with the pony because he is in contact with the pony, then because the instructor is also in contact with the pony, by extension the child comes into relationship and bond with the instructor


A review of the key points from this series…

The partner’s role with the child:

  • Engage the child: use play, join in what they’re already doing, use daily events
  • Keep the interaction going for as many turns as possible
  • Recognize where the child is developmentally and what the next step is
  • Use the 5 responsive strategies to help the child build their social and communication skills: balancing, matching, sharing control, responding, and playing
  • Use daily routines to help the child communicate, so you are practicing all the time

Here’s the steps in responsive communication interactions, as I see them:

  1. Meet them where they’re at
  2. Observe what they’re doing
  3. Imitate what they’re doing – playfully join in, until you get their attention or a laugh (don’t ask questions)
  4. Show them the next step (maybe explain it)
  5. Wait for them
  6. Repeat and take turns (may need to show the next step many times)

I hope you enjoyed this information and find ways to apply it in your lessons! What has been your experience with incorporating play into lessons? How do you find the right balance between play and working toward a goal?


Note: This is not professional advice, this is a blog. I am not liable for what you do with or how you use this information. The activities explained in this blog may not be fit for every rider, riding instructor, or riding center depending on their current condition and resources. Use your best personal judgement! If you would like to contribute an activity or article, please contact me here, I would love to hear from you!

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