Dear Learning Expressions Readers,
Working towards imaginative play with our kids who have special needs requires us parents and caretakers to be a little more creative when it comes to playtime. We are always looking for new ways to coax them into joining us, and remain hopeful that they are learning new skills along the way. Kids with Autism can be very obsessive and ritualistic. When my daughter Kiki was a toddler she had two primary obsessions: Disney's 101 Dalmatians & Barney. For the other children in her early intervention classroom it was Thomas the Train, wheels, doors, or computers.
Growing up, the idea of getting Kiki on the floor with me to play with an ABC puzzle was a hopeless dream. I couldn't even get her to settle down on my lap for a book. Instead I had to wrangle her in, and sometimes play all by my lonesome just to model what fun could look like! And when it came to
learning there was NO way she would sit with me and do a wooden puzzle, color pictures, or flashcards. She was on the go 24/7 and permanently set to "full speed ahead". In order to help her grow and develop, I had to tap into her "likes" (i.e. her other preferred activities) and HIDE learning into every experience.
Kiki craved sensory experiences. She loved the water and watching things fall. She would grab handfuls of leaves and sit there letting them fall out of her hand again and again—watching them fall from every angle, studying as if she were a motion analyst. Her Occupational Therapist suggested we make a rice box. Literally, a box with rice. I bought a huge Rubbermaid tub (the kind that can slide under a bed) and filled it half way full with rice. We would have Kiki sit in the box (with her dalmations of course!) then pick up the rice and watch it fall. We would add tools to the box so
that she could grasp, hold, and squeeze various handles to promote fine motor skills and pour the rice onto her arm or toes. As she grasped at measuring cups and wooden spoons, we benefitted from an increase in eye contact—almost as if she was saying thank you.
Flash-forward two years. Kiki is almost five years old and we need to work on our school readiness. We need to learn counting, ABC's, sorting, matching, and sequencing... but she would not color, write, or sit still long enough to work on these things. I wanted her to learn and recognize her abc's, not just to be able to sing the song. I knew that she was a visual/sensory kiddo who needed as many senses engaged in order to process, learn, and most importantly WANT to participate. I took our wooden Alphabet puzzle and hid just the first few letters of the alphabet deep into the rice. She saw me bury it. Little Miss Aloof was watching me carefully, and she heard me squeal with excitement when I recovered the letter A from the dangerous depths of rice! Even though she always seemed to be tuned out and ignoring me, she would listen and watch from the corner of her eye. And ultimately she accepted the challenge and recovered letter A from the rice. When she retrieved the letter I said "A" and placed it into the tray where it belonged. I then took all the letters out and started to bury more and more letters, using language like, "Oh no! Where's letter B?" I like to refer to this
exercise as thinking INSIDE the box, inside the box of rice that is! Other examples of learning that can be done inside the box are:
- With Wooden Lacing Beads or any stacking puzzles, bury the pieces in the rice and, as you retrieve them, recite the color or shape before placing on the lacing string/stick. Helpful OT
hint: Stringing beads onto lace can be very challenging for our kiddos with low tone or limited mobility in their hands. Our OT suggested that we string the wooden beads (or spools) onto a wooden chopstick or pencil to help build the fine motor muscles necessary to ultimately lace on a string. We don't want our kids to get too frustrated or we lose the opportunity.
- Work on shape recognition by hiding different wooden shape puzzle pieces in the rice box.
- One of our favorite games was called Mummify that Toy! Take one of your child's cherished favorites and cover it 100% completely in dough. I love Playfoam and Boing putty myself, as they don't make a mess and leave no damage behind. Roll it into a size so that your child cannot even recognize what lies below that dough! Use colorful language as you start to pick and dig out the item, "Uh oh, where's my Thomas the Train?" Make it into a song, "Oh where oh where can my Thomas Train Be, oh where oh where can he be?" As you start to reveal and uncover the toy, follow it up with more language,"Here it is!" or "I found your Thomas Train!" Have your child cover the toy up and start the process over again for great social, language, and fine motor fun!
When working to develop your child’s skill set, don’t be afraid to get silly, be creative, and remember that sometimes we gotta just think INSIDE the box! The ultimate goal is to make the playtime fun, and hope that our kids are learning new skills along the way.
And don't forget to check out the Learning Express Skill Building Toy Guide for Children with Special Needs. http://learningexpress.com/skill-building/index.html
Thanks for reading!