by Sandi Lehr, M.Ed., BCBA, COBA, New Heights ABA
Play skills do not always come naturally to children diagnosed with special needs. These skills may need to be taught over a period of time. Keys to building play skills include having the right toys and limiting and/or rotating the number of toys available in the environment at any given time.
1. Is the toy an open- or closed-ended toy?
Children who have little to no play skills benefit from closed-ended toys that have a clear beginning and ending such as shape sorters, puzzles, Mr. Potato Head or even books. Closed-ended toys teach children how to complete tasks before moving on to other activities.
Open-ended toys do not have a clear ending and may include blocks, cars, dolls, play houses or play food. Open-ended play promotes language, creativity, and social engagement.
2. How do I choose the right toy for my child?
Select toys that are developmentally appropriate for your child and keep it simple for open-ended play activities, especially for young learners. Model open-ended play activities such as feeding fake food to stuffed animals, putting a figure to bed in a play house or having a car knock down blocks. Be vocal in your play by making sounds with the objects you are using. Say “beep beep” during car play, “munch, yum, or mmmm” during play eating and “Zzzzzz” for sleeping.
3. How do I know if I am playing with my child the right way?
Natural play can even be difficult for adults. Reinforce correct play and shape those play skills along the way. Praise your child for appropriate play by giving them tickles, high-fives, or imitating their action in a dramatic fashion. A child will be more inclined to repeat a behavior if positively reinforced for it. A great resource for toy ideas and play scripts can be found at Paradigm Behavior’s Playroom.
The most important part is to have fun while teaching your child this very important skill!