Engaging in Play and Toy Exploration with Young Children


Engaging in play as an adult, whether as a parent or a teacher, can be somewhat challenging. You may have forgotten how to interact with a toy, or find it difficult to really engage in imaginative ideas with a child during an unstructured play activity. This can create an awkward and uncomfortable feeling for the adult and an under-stimulating or aversive environment for the child that is, frankly, not very reinforcing for either the adult or the child. As we know, reinforcement is incredibly important to increase the frequency of a behavior, so engaging in play and exploring toys needs to be reinforcing, ideally to both the adult and the child! We can help accomplish this goal by learning more about the different types of play, and the basic function of some common toys, thus making engaging in play more rewarding for everyone.

Children with special needs, such as autism, are often not naturally or socially reinforced by play, so specific teaching or structuring play can help create more opportunities for learning. Additional reinforcement can also be used to create a more pleasurable environment for the child. These rewards should be anything the child naturally likes, such as time with parent, snacks, preferred juices, etc. If they don’t naturally enjoy playing and find the situation upsetting or aversive, this can lead to them not wanting to play with toys or can result in the child exhibiting problematic behaviors such as tantrums during play scenarios.

When looking at young children, from ages 6 months to about 2 years (either their chronological or developmental age), types of play can be somewhat limited. The main focus is on exploration: exploring the environment, exploring items, tactile activities, moving into some beginner cause-and-effect play and beginner pretend play, using objects, characters, and play sets.

Exploring various toys with your child can help them improve their communication, social engagement, motor skills, and cognition skills such as problem solving, reasoning, and perspective taking. By engaging with your child through play, you can help connect to your child on a personal level and help enhance skills that will truly benefit your child’s development. 

Selecting toys can be overwhelming, as there are so many options out there. Some may look overwhelming or too advanced, while other toys may seem too boring for your child. It is important to try and capture the child’s interest by making the interaction fun, dynamic, and imaginative. Be clear on what you are trying to teach, such as motor skills by stringing necklaces, or cause-and-effect by filling and dumping sand. Provide opportunities for sharing and turn-taking, while providing rewards and treats when the child starts to pick up the idea of what you are teaching. Continue to shape the child’s learning by slowly increasing the length of play, number of steps, or complexity of the toy. As the child learns, reward them and remember to praise them. Be excited and show them you are happy for their successes!

Here are list of toys that can be helpful for social and independent play. Keep in mind that in order to reap the most benefits from these toys, your interaction will play a significant role. Try building conversations, modeling play, and giving necessary prompts.

  • Puzzles - Puzzles are great for improving your child’s cognitive skills, hand-eye coordination, and definitely fine motor skills. Remember to start with easy, peg-board puzzles and work up.

  • Dough or Clays – Practice motor skills such as rolling, pinching, smashing, and using the standard plastic tools for these items are good exercises for various parts of the hands. Make common objects or themes for play, such as a blanket for Barbie or a sword for an action hero.

  • Bean Bag Toss Games - Visual orientation, gross motor skills, and hand-eye coordination are some of the skills that are targeted as your child aims and throws. Totally fun and great for outdoor play!

  • Kitchen Play Sets - Playing with a kitchen set provides plenty of opportunities to enhance socio-dramatic play, functional pretend play, parallel play, and language. Begin with imitation, then labeling items, then simple conversations to help shape the child’s skills.

  • Figurine Play Sets – These toys allow for endless possibilities from farm life to multi-sequence stories. Opportunities can be contrived to target various skills like pretend, labeling, echoics, imitation, sharing, storytelling and so much more.

There are endless ideas for play, and it really comes down to using your imagination and being creative with it. Have fun, be flexible with play, yet create opportunities for the child to practice new skills. Remember to reward the child and yourself - after all, play should be fun!

Carrine Pilkington-Moore, M.S., BCBA, LMFT, LBA
Regional Clinical Director
May 28, 2019