Expanding Interests

Dr. Temple Grandin Quote

Written by Erika Ford (BCBA/Registered Psychologist/MA Psychology) –

One of the ways children develop is through their expanding interests and engagement in play. By developing new and diverse play activities or experiences, we can foster important and pervasive changes in a child’s overall development. As Temple Grandin pointed out “kids have to be exposed to different things in order to develop.” Exposure is key and it is our job as parents and educators to expose our children to new experiences. It is our job to support our children in their learning. While this may sound simple, we also know that for some children, new activities and novelty are not fun and may be met with resistance. A key aspect of play is the skill of learning to manage uncertainty and fear of new things. Autistic children often find it difficult to manage this uncertainty. We may see them resist trying new activities, or avoid certain sensory and social experiences. And there can be a tendency for parents and teachers to avoid the situations that make our children upset, fearful, or angry.

So how can we make this easier for our children? How can we create new interests if our children fear change? Why would we make our children do something that they seem to dislike?

When we get strong reactions from young people in response to new experiences, it can understandably result in us avoiding these situations. As we avoid these situations, we begin to limit those play opportunities that are so important for learning and development. Additionally, as we limit new experiences we also risk narrowing family/whanau participation within their community. Expanding a child’s interests opens opportunities for learning, participation, language and social interaction. It provides children with activities to occupy their time. It provides meaningful activities to share with loved ones and it helps maintain family/whanau well-being and community involvement.

How do we go about making these changes? How can we manage the conflict between the necessary exposure and fear of change? The answer isn’t straightforward, but there are a few strategies that can be used to support this learning.

A guide to expanding your child’s interests

Guide The very first step is to identify your child’s current interests. What makes your child tick? How do they choose to spend their time? What are their favourite toys, characters, activities? We are more likely to do things if they are familiar to us and we learn best when we are interested and motivated. It is important that we make use of our children’s current interests and decide how we can use these and expand on these to introduce new ideas and experiences.

Deciding where to start can be a daunting process. What interests should you choose to expand? What are your goals going to be? I have found that this is often the most difficult part for families and for teachers. Asking a few key questions can help with setting clear and realistic goals.

Is the activity/interest age appropriate? How can we make it age appropriate? It is important to consider what peers interests might be. By selecting activities that can be shared with peers we are creating opportunities for social interaction.

What activities/interests are likely to be enduring? Is this an interest that could be developed and expanded on in the future? For example, teaching your child to play the piano might take a long time, but it is an interest that they can carry through to adulthood. There is no age limit to it. On the other hand, completing a peg board or shape sorter is unlikely to be of interest as a person grows and develops.

It is important to consider family activities and interests. What would you love to do with your weekends and holidays? Is there a way to expand your child’s interests that would enable them to participate in more family activities? Do you enjoy skiing? Gardening? Cooking? Football? Is this something that could be taught?

You must learn to crawl before you can walk. Likewise, we cannot teach a new skill/ interest without first considering all the component steps. Sometimes our end goal, while realistic, may not be our starting point. For example, if we have identified skiing with family as our end goal, we might first need to teach goggles on and ski’s on. This is not likely to happen with one or two quick trips to snow planet. It might be that goggles and ski’s on is practiced every day or several times a week in the home before the next step (entering the building of snow planet) is introduced. After identifying your end goal, it is important to take the time to write out all the small steps that you need to work on first. Focusing on one step at a time will ensure that everyone is successful and give you the motivation to keep going!

Once you have identified your child’s current interests, goals and considered prerequisites, you can start expanding! It will become obvious that some strategies lend themselves better to certain goals than others. It is up to you to decide what strategies might work for you, for your child and for your individual goals.

“The power of association”

Before the Air Jordan shoes, basketball shoes were plain white. The shoes were banned when they were first released, as they challenged the status quo. Michael Jordan continued to wear the shoes. It wasn’t long until Nike air Jordan’s and the “jump man” symbol became a globally recognized shoe. This is the power of pairing. Friends that exercise together, get better results together. Physical activity is more enjoyable when you are with a spouse or friend. This may seem obvious but this is the power of pairing.

Pairing is the association of something non-preferred or unknown with something preferred or known. This is an extremely common and effective advertising tool. It’s also an extremely effective way of learning new interests. It involves taking one of your child’s current interests and pairing it with something new or unknown. For example, if your child is interested in toy dinosaurs but shows little interest in watching TV, you might begin by having them watch dinosaur You Tube clips on the computer or iPad. If your child is interested in dinosaurs but shows little interest in other independent play activities, you might have them complete dinosaur puzzles. It can be fun to get creative here! How many things can you do with your child’s interest?

Grandma’s rule

This is the principle that we will do what we don’t want to do (e.g., exercise) to earn what we want (e.g., eat more at a dinner party). This is what happens when you tell you kids that they can play video games after they finish their homework or they can have dessert if they eat their vegetables. We can use this rule to assist with learning new activities. “First we will do new activity and then you can do “old” or current activity.” When a more desirable activity follows a less desirable activity, over time the less preferred activities are more likely to occur. Additionally, with repeated exposure to the new activity we can learn to enjoy these activities.

Video Modeling

Video modeling is a form of observational learning where new skills are taught by watching a video demonstration. Video modeling has been used to teach many skills including social skills, communication, self-help skills and play skills. Video modeling is particularly appealing as it is less time consuming than in-vivo modeling and it has shown to result in quicker rates of acquisition and generalization to live modeling. An additional benefit of video modeling is an increased ability to gain and hold the child’s attention. Imitation of others is how we learn and the first step to imitation is observation. Before we can imitate we must observe those around us. Often the young people that we work with (and perhaps your child), don’t imitate because they are so busy engaged in their own interests, that they haven’t stopped to observe those around them. It is not necessarily a case of not being able to imitate, but instead, not stopping long enough to observe. Video modeling provides an opportunity for observing and therefore imitation of a new activity. There are several key components to video modeling.

  1. Use multiple examples to teach variation in the activity. This could be variations in comments made or variations in how the activity is carried out.
  2. Use a model that is familiar and liked by your child. This might be a sibling or yourself.
  3. Show the video 2-3 times consecutively.
  4. Then provide an immediate opportunity to play with the toys or to try the new activity.
  5. Repeated exposures will be needed before you see your child imitate the actions. It is common to see children start to mix and match different parts of the videos watched and to also add new actions.

It is important we create a supportive environment. Is there anything we can change in our surroundings to make the new interest or activity easier to do? Are there ways we can prompt or help this happen? We want to ensure we are setting our children up for success. There are several ways we can set the stage for success.


Which would you choose when both are available? Salad or burger. Making the less preferred more available will increase the likelihood that it is selected. If I go to my fridge and the only options are salad and veges, then I will probably choose salad. If I go to my fridge and the options are salad, veges and burger ingredients, I will likely choose burgers. We need to arrange our environment so that the new activities are the ones that are easily available. For example, the toy dinosaurs are not out on the table, but the dinosaur puzzle is there.

Physical Location

The Physical Location of items makes us more or less likely to interact with them. An example of this is product placement in a supermarket. There is an entire science behind the placement of products in your supermarket? Plan-o-grams are used to increase traffic, sales and profits. One phrase commonly used is “eye level is buy level” indicating that products positioned at eye level or just below are likely to sell better. The same idea goes for toys, games or activities. It is very easy to leave the toys you think your child will play with out and about. It is important to remember to take out the new toys, put them within easy access. If they are in a box or on a shelf, children will be less likely to play with them.

We all value choice!

A choice of tasks or activities is very important for our children. It is well documented that providing choice decreases the likelihood of problem behaviour and increases participation. As we start trying to expand interests it is important that we add in choice. Verbal or visual choice boards and activity schedules are an effective way to do this. They can help children spend their time wisely. Rather than telling your child “We are going to do Lego” you can provide a clear choice “would you like to play Lego or jump on the tramp.” Incorporating a choice board or activity schedule into a daily routine is a great way to ensure you are practicing the new activity. It is important to remember the expert in anything was once a beginner. You are helping your child to build a new habit. Most people don’t like new things, particularly new things we are not good at. With repeated exposure and practice we can and we do learn to like new things. We like them more as we become more proficient.

Initially, the activities themselves may not be enjoyable, but through the power of association, the use of grandma’s rule and by setting the stage for success, the activities become easier. They open opportunities for social and family interaction and the children learn to love them. The key is persistence and multiple exposures.  

“I’m not telling you it’s going to be easy. I’m telling you it’s going to be worth it.”