Setting up the play area
This is the second of a two part series on encouraging verbal communication and interaction in young or speech-delayed individuals through play. This section covers how to set up the play area to promote enriching play for children under the age of 5. The previous section can be found here.
While I like having one room in the house that contains most of the indoor child toys, this doesn’t need to be done in one particular part of the house, although it helps if you have an area that can meet your child’s sensory needs, especially if your child has autism. An over or under stimulating play room will make it hard for the child to concentrate. Even neurotypical children are easily overstimulated by busy, noisy play areas as Harvey Karp notes in The Happiest Toddler on the Block. For the sake of ease of conversation, I’ll use playroom to refer to the area where the bulk of the toys will be kept.
When deciding how to set up the playroom following the principles on encouraging enriching play laid out in the wonderful book An Early Start For Your Child With Autism, I kept a few things in mind.
I wanted to use the playroom toys to enhance communication with joint activities.
I got rid of toys that were limiting or could only be used one way, and took the batteries out of all of the toys but two puzzles. I reduced the overall number of toys available at one time since both neurotypical and autistic children are easily overwhelmed by too many choices. This is true in adults too. While in An Early Start, they recommend only having 6 types of toys out at a time, I found this a bit too limiting to try immediately, so I started reducing slowly, then began reducing more once I got used to it. The toys we aren’t currently using are kept in a large bin in the garage. I put groups of toys in bags so that its easier to switch them out. My boys are engaging far more with their toys since we began this process.
I wanted the boys to use imagination and creatively involve their toys in different activities.
I also wanted to promote substitution play, which is when you use an object to represent something else, for example, pretending blocks are cars or using a stacking cup to give a stuffed animal a drink. I decided to keep stuffed animals, blocks, a little people play set, and our pretend kitchen items out so that they could be used in other activities for imagination play. Since I did have a lot and my overall goal was cutting down, I reduced the number available of each for easy access and to facilitate clean up. It may seem limiting to reduce the amount of toys available, but I’ve found that it actually increases the amount and types of toys the boys play with.
I wanted to build in barriers to some of the toys in order to increase interaction opportunities.
An Early Start explains how giving your child as many interaction opportunities as possible increases the ability of the child to use interactions to communicate through verbal or nonverbal communication. For example, the authors suggest putting toys in clear boxes or bags so that the child has to communicate which toy they wish to play with. Most of my speech and ABA therapists have done this as well because it helps communication so much. Imagine a board puzzle simply sitting on a low shelf. The child can select and play with the puzzle without any direct contact with another person. In order to interact, the caretaker can narrate each piece when the child selects it, but the play doesn’t naturally become a joint activity. For a 5 piece puzzle, that’s 5 acts of communication, but the child isn’t very engaged with the caretaker, and the caregiver has to be careful that they are referencing the right piece if a child picks up more than one at a time.
Take the same puzzle and place it in a bag. Now, the child indicates to the caregiver that they want to play with the puzzle or the caregiver can offer the puzzle as part of a choice (1) . The caregiver requests that the child help to open the container with the puzzle and narrates the opening action (2) as well as narrates the child removing the puzzle from the container (3). Each piece is individually handed to the child from the bag and/or the child is offer a choice between puzzle pieces (8). When the child is finished with the puzzle, the caretaker asks if the child is finished (9) and when the child indicates yes, they encourage the child to put the pieces back in the bag, narrating while the pieces are returning (14) and the puzzle is put back on the shelf (15). We’ve tripled the interactions and designed a more engaged play session for the child.
The authors of An Early Start suggest dividing play up into four parts in order to promote joint activities, which can really help a child learn. The four parts are
The initiation or setup is when someone picks a toy. Either the caregiver can invite the child to play with something, or the child can ask to play with something. The theme is when two or more people participate in a particular activity together, such as building a tower with blocks or working on a puzzle. Narrate the theme as you engage with it. For example, if you are playing with play dough, you can roll a ball saying, “Ball” and then make a snake while hissing like a snake. Narrate what you are doing as well as what your child is doing, but pay attention to engagement so you can reference what your child is currently observing.
Since playing with toys the exact same way can be boring and lead to disengagement, variation is introduced. I like to add a loud dramatic noise to make the boys laugh and capture their attention. After we roll our balls or snakes, I dramatically smash mine while saying, “Smash! Smash! Smash!” The boys find this loud destruction funny and learn these words quicker. There’s a term called spotlighting, where you make a particular new word the focus with dramatic actions or emphasis. This is naturally built in to a lot of nursery games and rhymes with lots of repetition and physical actions to make certain words stand out.
When you or the child starts to get bored even with variation, you put the toy away together. It is easier to do this if the toys are naturally placed in bags or boxes. The authors of An Early Start recommended putting all toys in clear boxes, but I found this a bit imitating and I like to be able to spontaneously pull in a few toys such as the play food.
You can do this set up all over the house.
Not only has this increased communication skills, but its a great organizational tool. I have a bunch of items that I bought at the craft store that kept getting scattered around the house. Sorting them into bags made a huge difference compared to just putting them into their sorting containers.
Then you can place the bags in a giant ziplock bag or, as I later discovered, in the container that you use for sorting. I like to keep old wipes boxes for this purpose.
Then the sorting objects and receptacles can be stored together.
Other than the few toys I’ve selected for imagination and substitution play, everything else is placed up high.
I wanted the play room to be engaging, but not difficult to keep clean.
While cleanliness has nothing to do with communication per se, other than a less cluttered environment reduces stress for toddlers, the less time I spent cleaning up after the boys, the more time I spent engaging with them. It was also easier to get help cleaning once I started requiring that the toys placed up high be put away before another one was brought down. By the end of the first day, the boys were already starting to help me clean up without me explicitly requiring it of them. Now, Alden will signal he’s finished by putting things away.
One difficulty with multiple children is that one won’t be finished with an activity while the other one wants to move on to the next. I work around this by allowing only one of a certain type of activity; for example, either blocks or megablocks, but not both, and also having other options available at all times, such as the play foods and animals.
With multiple items out, it’s harder to keep clean compared to one activity at a time, but even when I do two at once, it’s much easier to restore the playroom to this state:
When I started this arrangement, I had a lot of trouble putting toys in the bin in the garage outside. Although logically, I knew they weren’t disappearing forever, I kept thinking about how my boys loved those toys. However, I’ve seen first hand how this actually promotes the toys instead of inhibiting. Each week, I end up putting a greater percentage in the bin outside. When I look at the picture of the playroom I posted above, I’ll probably cut down how many toys I have out by 1/3 next week. I also plan on moving more to shelves since my boys are having such great improvements with language and this really encourages them to enjoy their toys instead of scattering them all over the house.
While every child is different, these simple techniques have done wonders for both my boys. Corwin, my autistic son, has come amazingly far with speech to the point that he went from absolutely no language at all to within a normal range in half a year, even though I have kept it play-like and fun the entire time. Alden went from slightly speech delayed (but not enough to require services), to well caught up. I highly recommend this system to any parent of a young child.
Please feel free to share your stories of what worked for your family. I’m always looking for more tips and tricks to promote communication.