We all know that one of the best things you can do for your child is play with them. But for many parents of children with developmental differences, it can be hard to understand how to get involved and maintain the game once it has started. This interview with Abby Foltz Hottle includes helpful tips that will help you foster a positive relationship with your child, and in doing so, lead them toward a greater expression of his or her ideas and a better understanding of the world.
The first step is to recognize what your child’s interest is in the moment and then mirror your child’s behavior – joining in on the game he or she has already started. It may be pushing cars across the carpet, banging on a xylophone, or tracing words in the air. Do it how he does it – fast, slow, loud or soft. Whatever it is, join in and reflect back what you see.
DON’T be the creative genius.
It can be difficult for parents to take a back seat in play, especially if their child is slow to initiate something. But turn off that part of your brain that says “You’ll love this idea, just watch!” or “I can help – watch me!” This playtime with you may be the only part in your child’s day when he or she gets to create and execute his own ideas. However simple or elaborate, it needs to be respected. See where your child takes the ideas. After all, if you’re initiating all the ideas, when will he have the chance?
DO jumpstart initiation by providing context clues.
All play has a story with a beginning, middle, and end. It doesn’t have to be exciting like a Hollywood movie, but it should go somewhere. You can jumpstart the next step by providing context clues. If her toy dinosaur falls over, ask, “Is he hurt? Should we take him to the doctor?” This can point them in the direction of a narrative, but still give them the power over the story.
DO pair words with actions.
This is especially useful for kids who are still developing their vocabulary. If the stuffed animal kangaroo is hopping around the room, you may say, “Hop! Hop! Hop” with each bounce or if your child feeds his stuffed kitty a cookie, say something such as, “That kitty looks hungry!” When the steamroller and crane toys crash into each other say, “crash!” Some children have the thoughts, but not the words quite yet. Narrating in this way can help set a path that the child can follow without mom or dad taking control of the game.
DON’T be uncomfortable with silence.
The definition of “play” can be misleading – it sounds easy. But play is hard work for many children. It involves cognition, motor-planning, language, and speech. And speech alone is incredibly difficult. You must find your idea, physically form the sounds, and get the breath in the right place. So give him a break – avoid filling the silence with unnecessary words he has to give attention. Let your child process at his own rate. The silence will also give him space to initiate ideas.
DO select toys that involve your help.
Your child has many toys, but not all of them are ideal for shared play. He may love a certain toy, but if there’s not room for you in his game (you’ll be able to tell because he may turn his back to play on his own), it may be hard to enter. Select toys that require a certain amount of dependence on you to play. An example of a good toy is a marble run. It’s hard for a young child to build this by himself, but he can direct you where the pieces should go and you can take turns sending the marble down. Some other fun choices are balloons, windup toys, tops, and blocks for building towers.
DON’T talk out of their league.
When communicating with your child, your language should closely mirror their abilities. You can help them along by adding small pieces to their speech. If he says, “ball,” you may say, “red ball.” Kind of like a positive form of one-upmanhship. But you should probably stray away from “Yes! That’s right! The big red ball is rolling! Look at the ball bounce!” It’s good to model up, but keep within their range.
DO get feedback.
Want to know how you’re doing? Check in with your child’s body language. Is she withdrawing, closing her eyes, or covering her ears? If so, take the hint and pull back a little. If you’ve got an engaged child, carry on and look to take it to the next level.
You can also try filming yourself during play. It’s hard to be in the moment and evaluate your performance, so turn on your camera, enjoy the play, and watch the video later. This can be a great way to see how play is unfolding. Who is leading? Who is doing all the talking?
Similarly, you can schedule an appointment with a therapist to get more specific notes and feedback on your floortime practice.
Do: Have fun.
Be easy on yourself and your child. It may take time for you both to learn to play together. Failures will happen; it’s part of life. But if you are open, persistent, and celebrate every step along the way, you’ll find you and your child growing together, enriching each others lives. And that’s all we could ask for!