Even children as young as 1 have a full-time job to do. Play, experts say.

Play — as in good old-fashioned run around, get in the dirt, swing, bounce, chase and roll. Tag, you’re it.

“Play helps children develop coordination skills and social skills and self-confidence,” said Tina Chilampath, an occupational therapist for Memorial Hospital West. “There is a lot of research about the power of play and the positive effects on learning and development. I tell my parents that playing is your child’s job. It’s linked to learning, health, language development, social and emotional development and creativity.

“Multisensory play is even more important,” she added. “A lot of parents don’t want their kids to get dirty and they don’t play like they used to. But it’s OK to get dirty and explore movement and textures.”

NEW PROGRAMS

To that end, hospitals like Memorial have incorporated play areas into its rehabilitation centers for children with developmental disorders like autism. Miami Children’s Hospital has added new 12-week classes in Dance/Movement and a yoga class for kids ages 4 and older to help develop flexibility and strength.

“It’s important for everybody to know about their body and how it feels and to be confident in your body. A lot of children don’t get to be part of a group and to socialize and to get that satisfaction of being a part of a team and interacting and moving. It’s important to learn how to do these things,” said Sarah Brockway, an occupation therapist with Miami Children’s who uses her background in theater to teach the Dance/Movement class that helps children with sensory, social, motor planning, coordination and speech/language difficulties.

Through choreographed dance and theater-based movements, children in Brockway’s class build a show from the ground up and by the end of the 12-week session perform the piece for parents, siblings and friends.

“Some of the kids come in with very low verbal output and by the end they are making up poems and movements and are focused on getting to know each other,” Brockway said.

Yoga classes also incorporate elements of play and games, said class instructor and occupational therapist Gema Salvaggio. “The ideas is to get kids active and moving to get them confident with their bodies, as well,” she said. “Yoga poses tend to be challenging … increase strength and stamina so we hold poses for a specific time. This is being active in a non-competitive way. Most sports focus on competition and winning and yoga is not that at all but it’s an individual accomplishment.”

NEW LIFE

Two years ago, Xavier Gray couldn’t play on a swing, walk on sand or stand the touch of soft substances like shaving cream, Play-Doh or whipped cream, his parents say.

Today, at 31/2, Xavier “is doing fantastic,” said his dad Terry Gray, a Hollywood-based attorney.

The difference: play sessions and therapy at Memorial Rehabilitation Institute with Chilampath and other occupational therapists.

“When he first started, he hated the feeling of grass or sand underneath his feet, not a great thing for a kid living in South Florida. He hated unstable surfaces like swings or bounce houses. Today, not only is he much better with unstable surfaces, he loves to swing,” Gray said.

“He had a hard time finding his body in the world,” Xavier’s mom, Sarajane Weisberger, added. “The idea of putting shaving cream on this child was like burning him with a hot fireplace poker. The sight of it would make him gag. And now he’s gone from holding his hand out and asking for it, but he’s drawing his A-B-Cs on the floor with shaving cream.”

Xavier was diagnosed with autism and a sensory processing disorder at 12 months, his parents say. He was born early and quickly developed a feeding aversion. He wouldn’t hold eye contact and his parents were at a loss as to how to play with him.

Xavier, who is now in a nursery school program, would meet occupational therapists at Memorial Rehabilitation Institute at Memorial Hospital West three to four days a week for exposure to various physical sensations and experiences. There, he swung on special swing sets that afford full-body movement and rotation and played on zip lines, ball pits and rock climbing walls.

His parents also had homework. Chilampath “teaches us how to react to Xavier,” Weisberger said.

“He’s come a long way,” Chilampath said. “His parents have learned how to modify his environment and provide him sensory inputs without overwhelming him. They didn’t know how to play with him.”

Now, with recommended toys and play activities, the changes are profound.

“When Tina first described to me occupational therapy she said it was helping to teach him to be the best at his job. ‘What is his job? He’s1!’ She said his job is to play and to learn and that’s his job,” Gray said.

Follow @HowardCohen on Twitter.

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