Playing might seem like it should be the most natural thing in the world for a young child to do. But, for some little people, especially those with ASD (Autistic Spectrum Disorder) it is extremely challenging and they need extra help to develop these skills. Here are a few tips to help you teach your child how to successfully play with a wider variety of toys and activities.
1. Get down and play with them. Being on the same level as your child creates a totally different feeling for both you and your child. Lay or sit on the floor and try to get your eyes at the same level as your child so you can see what they see. If your child has trouble engaging with people socially then play next to them. Often this “next to” position or a right angle type position is less confronting for children who have difficulty making and maintaining eye contact.
2. Imitate. Watch what your child is doing, copy what your child is doing and then wait to see how they respond.
3. Extend. Once you have copied what they have done (e.g. hitting the blocks) change the play with that toy just a little bit (e.g. put one block on top of another or put the blocks in a circle). Wait and see if your child copies you. If they don’t imitate you don’t worry just go back to copying them and then try it again a little later.
4. Encourage “one more”. If your child quickly moves from one play activity to another encourage them to just have 1-3 more “turns” of the toy they are currently playing with.
5. Model how to play. Show your child how to play different ways with the same toy.
6. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Keep watching what they do, copy and then extend by showing them different ways to play with that toy over and over. If your little person needs help to learn how to play they will need lots of extra repetition to learn how to do it.
7. Play like a child. As adults when someone tells us to “play” we straight away want to create rules and do it the ‘right’ way. Instead try to imagine what a normally developing toddler would do with that toy and then give that a go (e.g. kick the blocks, rip the paper and stick your hand through the hole in the cardboard box!).
8. Use hands to guide. Once you have modelled how to do something you can guide your child’s hands and “help” them to copy you. Don’t force your child but support and encourage so they can see, feel and be more confident in playing a different way.
9. Get messy. Try playing with things that you wouldn’t normally consider “toys” such as water, dried beans, cooked pasta, leaves and mud etc. Messy play is a great tool for teaching children to cope with different sensations and learning new ways of interacting with the world around them.
10. Talk while you play. By providing a running commentary on what is happening you are helping your child learn to play and to connect language at the same time. Go you!
Most of all make sure you focus on how your child is responding and what cues they are sending you. Sometimes what seems like a child refusing an activity or toy is actually because they’re not sure how but with guidance they really enjoy it so don’t be scared to gently encourage your child to try again even if at first they might resist. Have fun learning together everyone!