Program: Toy Play

From time to time I will do a post about a specific ABA program. This post is about teaching children with Autism to play with toys appropriately.

Toy Play is a program I typically write for children with minimal to no play and/or social skills, children who spend their down time engaged in stimming only, or children who are consistently inappropriate with toys (chew on the toy, throw the toy, etc). The goal of Toy Play is to teach the child to use different types of play skills to interact with objects as designed, and eventually to add other people into this play behavior.

Your child/client could benefit from a Toy Play program if:

They mouth or stim off of any object or toy you hand them
When given a toy they quickly drop it or throw it (no interest)
They ignore toys or objects in their environment and instead engage with random materials such as carpet lint, pebbles or rocks, doorknobs, etc.
They do not interact with other children and often ignore other children
You find yourself having to constantly keep the child engaged because if left alone they wander around stimming, or engaging in problem behavior

Many people think that "play is play" and that there is nothing about play that a child needs to learn.....Just hand them a toy and step back. However, all children go through stages in the development of play skills that range from playing with simple toys alone, to playing with more complex toys alone, to playing games with other children. Children with autism may have a very difficult time learning to play. In fact, it may be easier for a child with Autism to work successfully than to play successfully. Motor skills and imitation skills are important prerequisites before beginning to target toy play skills.

When first beginning to teach Toy Play, observe how long the child will interact with a toy without your interference. Give them a simple toy, and step back and observe. Once they disengage from the toy (push it away, drop it, walk away, etc.), determine how long they played with it. If it was 15 seconds, start your teaching at 10 seconds. Always start a little bit below where the child currently is to encourage success. Initially all you are doing is requiring the child to interact with the toy for a set amount of time. Interacting with the toy can be as simple as looking at and touching the toy. If the child attempts to get up, push the toy away, throw the toy, etc., you would block that and redirect them back to the toy. Praise and reinforce appropriate interaction with the toy, and keep the play fun and animated. Keep the toys simple at first. A good choice would be a Mr Potato Head toy, where it is clear what body parts go where. A poor choice would be a pile of Lego's where there isn't a clear "way" to play with the item, and the child would likely be inappropriate with the pieces.

Over time, you increase the time intervals that the child must interact with the toy. Then you start to work on how they play with the toy such as requiring the child play with it correctly versus just touching it. Then you would increase the complexity of the toys, add yourself into the toy play, and ultimately add other children into the toy play. Part of working on this skill is teaching the child different types of play. Anyone with child development knowledge knows that children typically learn to play in certain phases.  Examples include:

1) parallel play- playing near others, but not with others
 2)cooperative play- playing with others towards a common goal, such as building a tower
 3) imaginative play- playing alone or with others in a creative, free flow game of pretend, such as making an imaginary cake.

Toy Play is a fun program to teach, and it is also important. A child who has the been taught the skill of toy play can easily learn other important skills such as social interaction, joining play, Task Completion, and even transitioning. Children who do not know how to be appropriate with toys are at a disadvantage when placed in a group of peers. Especially for young children, play skills are a form of communication. Children walk up to one another and invite each other to join games, to play with a toy together, or to make up a game. Appropriate toy play skills can also decrease self stimulatory behaviors, because for some children with Autism their stereotypy is how they play. Teaching these children how to appropriately engage with an object can eventually replace the stims, which can be very socially stigmatizing.

 Children who lack toy play skills wont know what to do in social situations, which over time will delay social skill growth. Many times in classrooms the children are expected to attend to a toy or object while the teacher prepares for a transition. Children without the ability to play with toys are at a distinct disadvantage during transitions, because they tend to wander around the room stimming or being  inappropriate.

For more information about teaching play skills please see the following link:

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