Play & IA: How to Have Fun While Developing Interoceptive Understanding

     Hi, Kelly Mahler here, occupational therapist. The topic I want to talk about today is inspiring a little bit of silliness and fun in me, and that topic is play, or specifically something called playful learning. This concept of playful learning can be important to interoception growth, and it can play a big role in many of our interoception journeys.

What is Playful Learning?   

So first, what is this thing we call playful learning? It is a little bit different than traditionally defined play, as traditional play is completely 100% learner-directed. With traditional play, the learners are exploring and seeking out activities that are meaningful to them and engaging in those activities in a way that’s meaningful to their experience, to their neurology. There’s really not a lot of structure to that play and there are very limited defined goals to that play.

In contrast, playful learning does have a little bit more structure and does have a little bit more of an end goal to it. In the case of this blog, it is all about learning about your own interoceptive experience. This concept of playful learning is really still focused on bringing joy and fun, but it has that end goal of connecting to yourself, learning about your own body sensations, and what they mean to you during this form of learning and play.

This concept of playful learning was first defined by Bergen back in 1988. I only became familiar with this term a few weeks ago, but it really summarizes what I am all about as an OT and as a mom. I was raised in a household where my parents and my grandparents were all super playful, super silly people, and we played lots and lots of games and activities together. Now in my own household with my own children, we are no different. Then I went to school to become an OT, a pediatric OT, and our whole shtick is play and using meaningful forms of play to help our clients reach their own goals. So, this concept of playful learning is deeply ingrained in me; to have fun and to provide meaningful learning opportunities for my clients. That idea is also weaved throughout all of our interoception supports.

Our newest resource is The Big Book of Interoception Games, which has 53 interoception games. They’re all rooted in playful learning and helping to guide our clients in learning about their own inner experience. So, while we’re providing a structure of a game, that structure is loose. The book is intended to be very learner-directed and to allow for a lot of choice, a lot of variations that make it more meaningful to that person. We really want to inspire that wonder, that self-discovery while that person is hopefully having a good time.

4 Tips for Playful Learning

Let’s talk about a few of the main tips that we highlight in our newest book. We included a lot of tips. I’ll just summarize a few of our top ones for you in this blog.

Tip #1: Know Your Learner

First, know your learner. Play is different for all of us. What we find fun is different for each one of us. Some of us might really enjoy highly structured play, and others of us might prefer more easygoing types of activities. Maybe some of us love to play in a group, while others prefer to play alone or with one other person. It’s important to know each of your learners and set up a process that is going to be as meaningful and fun as possible.

Tip #2: Inspire Inner Reflection Without Expectation of Response

The next tip is to inspire inner reflection without expectation of response. Within each of our 53 games, we have a ton of different interoception questions and interoception observations that you can use with the learner. These questions, these responses, these observations are intended to guide their inner reflection, but we don’t need or require a response from them. It’s really just about inspiring that inner wonder. So, we’re inspiring that inner curiosity or inner wonder without expectation of a response.

Tip #3: Play Together

The third tip is to play together. These games are not intended to be done to the learner, they’re intended to be done together with the learner. I don’t know about you, but I have learned a tremendous amount about my own interoceptive experience through the work that I’ve done with my clients. Playing together, doing my own interoception work, using interoception supports together with my clients has taught me a lot about my inner self. It’s given me really surprising insights that have been so instrumental to my health and wellbeing. So play together, and who knows, maybe you will inspire that inner wonder in yourself.

Tip #4: Examine Your Goal

The final tip is to consider the goal of the game or of the playful learning. The goal is not to play the game according to the instructions that we wrote in the book. The goal of the game is, again, to help each learner connect to their bodies, to help them start noticing sensations, or maybe they’re connecting sensations to the meaning, or they’re working on that action phase again, and working on changing the way that their body feels if they want to. Think about the goal of the work and stay loose and flexible (which I know can be really hard sometimes!). But keep in mind, what is the goal of this game? The goal is to help the learner to discover more about themselves, not to complete the game accurately or per instructions. You have my full encouragement to modify and vary each game to maximize the fun and learning experienced by both you and your client.

Until next time.

Want to take a deeper dive into Interoception? Check out all of our wonderful resources here. See below some of our favorites for learning the ins and outs of interoception.

Interoception exercise cards
Interoception activity cards
Interoception yoga card deck