Multi-Sensory Play Experiences Improve the Brain’s Ability to Change and Grow

September 21, 2012

High-quality play areas – found today in hospitals, malls, physical therapy clinics and child care centers – can provide a multi-sensory experience that motivates even severely disabled children to learn and strengthen as they play.

Thanks to research in a relatively new field – neuroplasticity – private and hospital-based physical therapists are discovering that they can have a positive impact on pediatric patients who, previously, may have been underserved.

“In the past, many therapists might have said that a cerebral palsy child had no ability to improve and that our job was simply to help them live with it,” says Kimberli Curtis, a physical therapist in Indiana. “But neuroplasticity shows that we can make some significant changes in how they progress.”

Neuroplasticity refers to the ability of the human brain to change as a result of one’s experience, suggesting that the brain is “plastic” or “malleable.”

Curtis points to the brain’s apparent need for an enriched environment as it attempts to learn new skills.

“Neuroplasticity shows that, if we are interested in an activity, we will absorb it much more quickly than if we are told we have to do something that we’re not interested in,” she explains. “Our brains form new pathways in a happy environment.

“That is why we use play in physical therapy,” says Curtis. “The more senses you can incorporate into learning, the more you will learn.”

But she cautions that not all play is therapeutic.

Curtis points to the play areas created by PLAYTIME, LLC and says they offer much of what a therapist tries to achieve in a clinical setting.

“They are the right scale and they encourage different gross motor skills, but they also have a multi-sensory aspect,” she says. “I see a lot of possibilities in how to utilize those play areas within a therapy setting because it makes the work fun for children.”

In addition to the soft-foam “climbers and slides,” Curtis points to PLAYTIME’s squishy piano keypad, which plays notes as children crawl or roll on it.

“A child who can’t move independently can play on that piano and he starts to realize that, ‘Hey! When I move my body, something happens! This is really cool! Let me do that again!’ If I can get them internally motivated to move, that is 90% of the battle.”