So often, we take for granted that kids like to play. We buy them toys, arrange play dates, and even take them to parks and public areas, all in the name of playing. No one doubts the importance of play on a child’s development. It builds confidence, social skills, creativity, and imagination.
But what happens when a child is unable to play? They may seem disinterested in age-appropriate toys, preferring to throw them or spin them. Or, a child may be so involved with his toy that he refuses to engage with other adults or peers. Another common concern is when a child may be able to learn functional play skills but has trouble progressing on towards interactive play and symbolic play. Meaning, they can learn to build a block tower but they won’t build blocks with other kids or pretend that they blocks are a road to drive a pretend car on.
If play is difficult for your client or child, there are some ways to work on it so that it improves.
Step 1: Teach the child to tolerate adults in their space
A child might be able to engage in a toy, but as soon as an adult comes over, the child runs away. This child might have learned that adults tend to interrupt their fun play and try to control it. At this early stage, we encourage parents and other adults to be fun with their kids. Let the child take the lead on controlling how he uses the toy and then copy the child. If Jacob is enjoying flipping cars upside down and watching the wheels spin, get on the ground beside him and flip your own cars. Don’t put too many demands on him; let him learn that having adults in his space while he plays is fun!
Tip: The adult should have her own set of toys, don’t take the toys from the child.
Step 2: Slowly begin to manipulate the play
Once Jacob is able to tolerate having an adult beside him while he plays, the adult can begin to control some parts of that play. Try to get in his play and push his car for 10 seconds. If he tolerates this, then back off and reward him by giving him back the control. We can try switching up the routine so that if he always plays with the blue car, tell him to use the red car. If Jacob likes to put his car down the ramp first, have him let you take the first turn.
Tip: Remember, this is hard for some little guys! Don’t push too hard and be prepared with lots of good reinforcement!
Step 3: Increase the amount of play sequences
If Jacob has gotten really good at letting you put the cars down the ramp together with him, try teaching him more sequences with that toy. For example, put the cars into a car wash, put gas into the cars, and maybe crash the cars together. Also work on increasing the child’s time on task so that he can engage with adults while playing for longer periods of time.
Tip: Whatever you do, remember to make it fun!
Step 4: Introduce peers
Once a child can play with an adult for 3-5 minutes and has about five sequences within each play activity, we can start to introduce peers. Similar to step 1 (above), we would teach the child to tolerate playing near peers, also called parallel play. Parallel play remains age-appropriate until about age four when interactive play typically emerges.
Tip: Kids love trains? Build one track and have them each drive their own cars around the track
Step 5: Interactive play with peers
For a child older than four who is able to demonstrate parallel play with peers, we can teach interactive play. As an adult or therapist, you can help manipulate the play so that instead of two children building two separate block towers, they take turns building a tower together. Once they can play together and share some toys, we can work on increasing more conversation skills.
Tip: We like to start teaching conversation skills in play by modeling – narrate what you’re doing, even if it’s just sounds effects! Examples: “vroom, vroom”, “Here’s some gas” “Down the ramp”