Exploratory Play: Tips For Children Who Dump Toys

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boy stacking toys in exploratory play

Exploratory play is a crucial stage in a child’s development, especially for young autistic children. It’s a time when they begin to understand the world around them, develop fine motor skills, and explore cause-and-effect relationships. The Hanen Centre, a renowned organization specializing in speech and language development, offers valuable insights into this pivotal stage.

Exploratory play typically emerges during the early toddler years and continues into early childhood. At this stage, children are curious about their surroundings and eager to engage with objects and people. They use their senses to explore the textures, shapes, and functions of various objects.

Exploratory play is essential for children’s cognitive and social development. It lays the foundation for problem-solving skills, language development, and understanding of basic concepts. For young autistic children, this stage can be particularly important as they may need additional support and guidance to navigate this phase.  This is because they often stay in this stage longer and have a strong preference for one way of exploring.  This isn’t wrong, but we want to be able to take what they like and provide expanded and varied experiences for them.  

The Hanen Centre recommends starting with the acronym OWL.  It stands for “Observe, Wait, and Listen.” It represents a set of strategies that parents, caregivers and educators can use to support language development in young children, particularly those with communication difficulties. Here’s a brief summary of each component:

Observe:  This involves closely watching and paying attention to the child’s actions, gestures, and nonverbal communication cues during interactions. By observing, caregivers can gain insights into the child’s interests, needs, and attempts to communicate.

Wait: Waiting means giving the child time to initiate communication or respond to an interaction. It’s about being patient and allowing the child the opportunity to take the lead in the interaction. Waiting encourages the child to become an active communicator.

Listen:  Listening involves not only hearing the child’s words but also paying attention to their nonverbal cues, such as facial expressions and body language. It’s about being fully present and responsive to the child’s attempts to communicate, even if they are nonverbal or at an early stage of language development.

The OWL strategy promotes responsive and child-centered communication, creating an environment where the child feels encouraged to engage and express themselves. It’s particularly valuable in supporting children with language delays or disorders by fostering their communication skills and confidence.  So, think about this as you are implementing the put in and take out strategies for students at the exploratory stage of play.

Autism Play Ideas:

One of my favorite ways to build a connection and joint attention is through activities like blowing bubbles and using 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).

There are many different actions you can focus on at this level of play.  A few examples are: pushing buttons or pressing a lever, connecting two or more objects, stacking, inserting objects, driving, putting objects in and taking objects out.

autism play ideas

5 Tips For Incorporating “Put in” and “Take out” Activities

“Put in” and “take out” activities are fantastic ways to support young autistic children during the exploratory play stage. These activities promote fine motor skills, sensory exploration, and understanding of object permanence. Here are five tips for incorporating these activities that you can start using now!

1. Start with a container with a big hole or opening in the top:  Many times, I start with a simple container with the lid off.  You can put big puff balls in, characters, small stuffed animals.  Really, anything!

2. Start with objects that are easy to handle and grasp. Consider small toys, large beads, or colorful balls. These items are not only visually appealing but also provide tactile feedback, which can engage your child’s senses.

3. Choose containers that allow the child to see the objects inside. Clear plastic bins, baskets, or jars work well. Visual cues help children understand the “put in” and “take out” concept more effectively.  You could use a core board or a single visual cue card for this.

4. Make more DIY containers with slots or smaller circles cut out of the lid for the opening.  Then, the child has to pay closer attention to putting the object in.  You can also find a lot of toys at this level that are perfect for “put in activities”.  Check out my Amazon shop link in the show notes for all of my favorites!

5.  Don’t forget that you can make or use activities that can be taken out too.  I have a cute box where the child can pull scarves out of the opening. I like to take turns doing that because I put the scarf in front of my face and play peek-a-boo.  It’s so fun and kids love it!

You may be wondering why it’s important to do these activities.  Well, these are all leading to one step functional play.  Next, we may teach our student to put a ball IN the hole at the top of a ramp to watch it roll down.  We might practice putting the Little People IN the bus.  These activities help us get to the next level of play and introduce our students to other activities that they may like playing with.  

The biggest thing with all of these activities is to have FUN together!  If the child doesn’t like a certain activity, pivot and do something else.  Be sure to give them ample time to play in the way THEY prefer to play too.  

autism and play

More Exploratory Play Tips

I have a couple more tips for you as you start to use the put in and take out activities.  

One is to narrate the process instead of asking questions.  As the child engages in the activity, you might say “ready, set, go!!!” or “red ball”.  We might model the use of the core board or AAC device. This will help encourage language development and helps children understand the cause-and-effect relationship.

The next tip is to start thinking about one step functional play.  When your student is able to do a variety of actions with a variety of toys or objects, it’s time to start thinking about one step functional play.  You can model these actions and also use visual supports to help teach them.  I have several themed play visual support sets for toys and activities like:  kitchen theme, cars, trains, pets/vet, building blocks, dinosaurs, farm and zoo.  They include visuals for one step play actions, as well as two step play actions.  

So, for a child who has learned to do a variety of “put in” and “take out” activities, you could use the visuals to show “put the people in the bus” and “take the people out of the bus”.  Then, you could teach “push the bus”.  Those are all separate one step play actions.  When they can do that, you can start combining those into two step play actions.  This would look like, “put the people in the bus, then push the bus”.  Do you see how that works?  It’s baby steps, but it all comes together so nicely over time.  Plus, it’s so much fun!

Following the child’s lead can be really helpful when you are figuring which activities to start with and how to expand. Pay close attention to each child’s interests and preferences. Follow their lead and choose activities and objects that capture their attention. This can help increase their engagement and motivation to communicate.

These activities provide opportunities for turn-taking. Encourage the child to take turns with you or with a peer or sibling when possible. This is a way to work on social interaction skills while playing with these simple activities.

You will also want to allow the child to make choices during playtime. Offer them different objects or containers to use in their activities. Being able to make choices is empowering and can lead to more active engagement.

Communication isn’t limited to words. Pay attention to the child’s nonverbal cues, such as gestures, facial expressions, and body language. Respond to these cues to reinforce communication attempts.

Give the little one time to explore and experiment with the activities. Be patient and responsive to their cues and attempts to communicate, whether through words, gestures, or sounds.

I can’t say this enough.  Make it fun. Keep the activities enjoyable and fun. Playful interactions can encourage your child to participate and communicate more effectively.

Remember that every child is unique, and progress may vary. Tailor your approach to your child’s individual needs and abilities. The key is to create a supportive and responsive environment that encourages communication and language development during exploratory play.

Incorporating “put in” and “take out” activities into your child’s daily routine can foster their development during the exploratory play stage. Exploratory play is a precious time in a child’s life when they discover the world around them. By providing the right guidance and activities, you can help young autistic children thrive during this crucial stage of development.

Listen to podcast episode 36, all about exploratory play here: https://autismlittlelearners.com/the-autism-little-learners-podcast/

If you want to read more about Functional Play here is a blog post on that topic!

If you use visual supports in your classroom or home, you are going to want to sign up for this free Visual Supports Starter Set ASAP! Click here to have one sent to your inbox. Also, be sure to read more about visual supports and how they can help autistic children here.

Visual supports starter set

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