Functional play and autonomy.

Get the most out of playtime!

Many children on the Autism Spectrum engage in play that may not be functional for their age or for the use of the toy. While it is important to teach the appropriate ways to play with toys, we still want our children to have a sense of autonomy and be able to lead their play activities. Below are a few play situations you may experience with your child’s play and how to teach them functional play that they will enjoy:

What if my child only likes to play with toys that are too young for him/her?

Toys are entertaining on so many levels; the lights, noises, and movements are intriguing to most adults too. In order to teach your child new items to play with, first determine what part of the toy seems to interest your child the most.

Do they like to push a particular button to see the lights flash? Great! Once you know where their interest lies, find a more age-appropriate toy that has a similar characteristic, like a light up sword. Offer your child the new toy and see how they react, maybe they are immediately interested, awesome! Maybe they are not, and that is okay too! If they show little interest in the new toy, start to play with the new toy and the old toy together and make it fun. Swing the sword against the old toy to make it light up or turn the lights off and make both the toys light up. Over time, slowly offer the old toy less and less and start to play with the new toy by itself. Offer a lot of attention and praise for playing nicely with their new toy. Eventually, the new toy will be just as fun as the old one!

What if my child does not like to play with toys based on their function?

Take a little bit of time each day (20-30 minutes) to show them how to play with a specific toy they already enjoy. Maybe your child likes puzzles, but they do not put them into the corresponding slots, this would be a great item to start with. Spend 5 minutes at a time showing them how to complete a puzzle, helping your child put the pieces in themselves, then allow them to try independently. During this time, offer your child a lot of praise (“Great job putting the triangle into the puzzle!!”), tickles, and attention. Make appropriate play more fun and exciting than non-functional play (ex: spinning the puzzle pieces on the floor).  Try teaching one toy at a time until they can play with the toy appropriately and independently, but do not forget to praise them for their hard work!


What if my child does not like to play with toys at all?

Start small! Find something easy to play with that you can enjoy with your child, like a pop-up toy. You can hold their hand and help them push the button, then celebrate it their success. Your attention and praise will make the toy fun and exciting and something they will want to play with in the future. Once your child approaches that toy independently, you know you are on the right track, keep teaching, engaging, and praising your child for their appropriate play. Work on teaching one toy at a time and move on to a new, easy toy when they are appropriately playing with the first one.

We all like to play in our own way and that is a wonderful way of expressing ourselves. Teaching functional play skills is a way to help our children be able to socialize with peers their age, but don’t forget to allow them time to play the way they want, as well. With continued practice, your child will get the hang of it in no time!

This blog entry was written by Caitlin Meek, BCBA.





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