Written by Aimee Houston (BCBA/Registered Psychologist/Master of Science) –
One of the biggest questions I get asked in my job is how I stop a certain behaviour from occurring. More often than not, the answer lies with what your child could be doing instead. A core diagnostic criterion associated with autism is that the child can become rigid and display repetitive actions. You could see how this could lead to our children developing limited play skills and not particularly enjoying exploration of new activities.
Exploration and exposure to new activities and types of play is one of the primary actions we should be encouraging in our children. Walt Disney hit the mark when he said “I have long felt that the way to keep children out of trouble is to keep them interested in things”. Multiple research studies have found when children are unable to engage themselves, we see other, more problematic behaviours increase.
I could go on forever about the benefits of play, but I will try to provide a concise list below.
An increase in your child’s interests encourages the development of meaningful language. Think about it this way, if you are out for breakfast and at the table next to you is an actor from your favourite show, you’re going to want to share this information and excitement with the person you are with. This is the same with our children, if your child is excited about something they are going to want to share that excitement.
Play has a large role in enhancing children’s daily learning. The more your child explores different toy sets, the greater the exposure to learning opportunities. These learning opportunities are hugely varied such as increasing fine motor skills by opening and shutting parts, cause and effect such as pushing a button and another component opening, or matching skills by having pieces fit into each other.
Play facilitates the development of creativity and imagination. These two skills are highly influential in terms of increasing your child’s social opportunities. If your child is able complete a task for a sustained duration such as building a castle out of Duplo blocks while at a kindy, a friend’s house, play group, or any other location which involves other children, the increased access your child will have to social opportunities is huge compared to if your child did not have these great independent play skills.
So how do we get down to business and start encouraging play? There are three main pieces of advice I can give you. The first? Buy toy sets. Have them easily available. I know this sounds like a no brainer but often we get caught up in the day to day running of our lives that some really exciting toys end up packed away in boxes. Have these toys out of their boxes and readily available, no kid is going to go searching in cupboards and boxes for ways to entertain themselves. We need to help them by making toys as easy and as desirable as possible, which brings us to my next point.
Exposure, exposure, exposure. What does this mean? It means to provide your child with the opportunity to learn how to play with toys by repeatedly exposing them to your child. The more variety we expose to our children the more we will see them gravitate toward certain toys, perhaps they prefer toys that create noises, or they prefer visual toys that display light patterns. We won’t learn these preferences unless we are providing our children with the opportunity to figure this out for themselves. In saying this, if you find your child starts to get sick of a toy, put it away and bring it out a few weeks/months later, you may find your child has a new-found love for that toy again.
Be silly, have fun, and laugh. Get down on your child’s level, this may mean sitting on the floor with them and demonstrating how to use the toys, and being silly and animated in both your actions and your voice. You may find yourself enjoying the toys too. Be your child’s cheerleader, cheer them along when they show interest in the toy, this could even be just touching the toy to begin with.
The reality is that this last tip is often the most difficult, it can be tricky to continue using silly voices and being animated when your child may not laugh with you or copy what you are demonstrating. But think about all those positive benefits we listed about play above and why you are doing this and why you should persist. Perhaps start with setting yourself a simple goal, making a conscious effort to have easily accessible toys scattered around the house. Then build from here, spend 5-10 minutes a day on the floor with your child purely playing with toys and embracing the silliness that comes with it.