Exploratory Play And Autism

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What is exploratory play and how does it relate to autism? Can I help expand play for my student or child who dumps or bangs toys? What comes after exploratory play? Keep reading to learn more about exploratory play and autism! You can also listen to the podcast episode on this topic here.

What Is Exploratory Play?

According to The Hanen Centre, exploratory play is when children explore objects and toys using their senses. They perform “actions” on objects. For example, they dump, bang, mouth, throw and shake objects and toys. Later in exploratory play, children bang two objects together and put one object inside of another. Because autistic children tend to stay in this stage longer than neurotypical children, it can be confusing and hard to know how to expand their play. This stage of play is usually seen in the first year of life. First words often come from objects that children are able to explore by touching them. Part of this is because parents and caregivers tend to name the objects little ones are holding. So, the exploratory stage of play is more important than we give it credit for! For an overview of all the stages of toy play, click here.

What Toys Or Activities Are Good For Exploratory Play?

When your student or child is constantly dumping toys or banging toys, it can be hard to see it as a normal stage of play. It feels useless (and messy!). However, there are some ways you can use this stage of play to connect with your student or child. There are also some toys and activities that can help add some structure so you can work on beginning language and joint attention. One of my favorite ways to build a connection and joint attention is through activities like blowing bubbles and using the foam dart toy. Check out this Instagram Reel to see how I use the foam dart toy. You can also use little cars that you pull back and they propel forward on their own. All of these activities are perfect for saying “READY…..SET….. (pause)….. GO!”. This provides a predictable routine and often encourages the word “go” (or a word approximation).

Another type of toy that is awesome for this stage are toys that children can “take out” and “put in”. Remember that taking objects out (aka dumping) usually develops before putting objects in. There are so many toys that can be used to encourage these skills for a more structured activity. Check out this list of recommended exploratory toys. You can also watch this Instagram Reel to see the crinkle tissue box toy in action, and this reel to see my favorite exploratory play toys. The other favorite is the Tot Tube, and you can watch it in action here.

What Comes After Exploratory Play?

When you have a student or child who is clearly in the exploratory stage of play, you may wonder how to stretch their skills into the next stage of play. Next up is the “functional stage” of play. In this stage, children start to play with “cause and effect” toys. They push buttons and figure out that their actions make something happen! This moves into children learning to do one-step actions with toys. For example, pushing a car or putting the people in the toy bus. This is where it can be important to use visual supports for your autistic students or child. Using visuals that show the one-step play actions can help children understand what to do with the toys. This is a great goal/objective area (e.g. Johnny will learn to play with a variety of toys by increasing the number of one-step play actions with toys from 2 to 20). Once your student or child has learned a variety of one-step actions with toys, you can move on to teaching 2 step play actions.

Why Is Play Important?

You have probably heard the quote, “play is the work of childhood”. It’s so true! Play is how children learn and how children practice what they have learned. Play is strongly linked to the development of first words and language, as well as social, pre-academic, and motor skills. It is so important! Autistic children often play with toys in different ways than neurotypical children. They may focus on parts of toys or objects or play in unconventional ways (spinning wheels, lining up toys, and visually inspecting toys). Our job is to embrace the way autistic children prefer to play with toys, while at the same time “stretching” their skills. Because noticing and imitating what others are doing with toys may not happen, we need to support our autistic students with visual supports. With these supports, we can help expand their play. It is still important to let them explore toys in their preferred way too!

Don’t forget to head over and listen to the Exploratory Play podcast episode.

Be sure to download the Autism Classroom Guide and get the top 10 tips for supporting young autistic children in a self-contained classroom.

the image shows the cover page of a guide for a self contained autism classroom.  It shows a pictures of an early childhood classroom and 3 sample pages in the guide.

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