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How to Teach Your Child Symbolic Play Skills

Submitted by kidspeak on Fri, 01/27/2012 - 09:19.

Now that you have read our “A Guide to Symbolic Play” blog http://www.autismspot.com/blog/Guide-Symbolic-Play and you have assessed your child’s symbolic play skills, it’s time to get busy and start playing! We have included some ideas on two separate symbolic play activities: one for beginner symbolic play skills and one for more advanced skills.

Beginner Symbolic Play Skills

If your child is in the object manipulation stage or early single scheme stage, this is where you want to start. The first step is for your child to have objects act out pretend actions (single schemes and multiple schemes). A fun way to introduce this is with ANIMALS. Children love animals and most of them are familiar with animals whether it be from their experiences with their stuffed animals, animal books, their pets, school themes, trips to the zoo, music and more. It is likely they can recognize some animal sounds and different animal names. A fun way to introduce symbolic play with animals is with a toy farm. When choosing a toy farm for your child, think about safety, fine motor skills, visual spatial skills and their interest level. If your child is young and their fine motor skills are still developing, get a farm with large easy to grasp animals and pieces. Animals that are too small may be dangerous and even hard to see. If your farm makes sound, lights up or is musical, take out the batteries so it does not do any of these things when you are playing. The sounds and lights will distract your child away from the very important symbolic play skills you are working on! Here are a few different types of toy farms:

Fisher-Price Little People Farm
http://www.fisher-price.com/fp.aspx?st=2053&e=product&pid=37354
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Tier Toys Farm
http://www.amazon.com/Tier-Toys-Stackers-Barn-Yard/dp/B002JPKG94
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John Deere Farm
http://www.amazon.com/John-Deere-Big-Barn-Playset/dp/B00065ARMA/ref=sr_1...
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Playmobil Farm
http://www.amazon.com/Playmobil-6750-Large-Farm/dp/B001OBO6V8/ref=sr_1_1...
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Where to Start with Pretend Farm

Start basic! You want your child to have the animals pretend to do basic actions within single schemes such as:
1. Walk
2. Run
3. Sleep
4. Eat
5. Drink
6. Climb
7. Play

How do you teach your child to have their animals do these pretend actions? MODEL THE PLAY! If you drill your child with commands such as, “show me pig walking”, “where is horse sleeping,” the naturalistic component of the play activity is removed and; therefore, your child is not necessarily playing and their symbolic play skills will not naturally progress. There is also the risk that this activity will seem more like work than fun and they may develop a negative association with the activity……the last thing we want to happen! So model, model, model! In addition to modeling, here are some other transactional supports you can provide your child with to help them develop farm symbolic play skills:

Model: Show your child the play scheme you want your child to do (horse pretend eats, cow pretend sleeps, chicken pretend drinks, etc.). How is your child supposed to know how to play if they have never seen the activity or if they just aren’t sure what to do? Also, if someone they trust (YOU!) is engaging in the activity first and is having fun, then your child will know what to expect and they will be more willing to try! Also, your child may need to see and hear multiple models before they are ready to try the actual play. This is okay! Just keep modeling and singing and go at your child’s pace.

SING: If only life was a musical www.autismspot.com/blog/If-Only-Life-Was-Musical, everything would be much easier for our kids! Sing about what you are doing. Make up tunes as you go. Sing when you want your child to imitate the play model. This will help your child attend to the play, understand what is happening, imitate the play and even comment. For example, to the tune of “The Farmer in the Dell”: “The horse eats the hay, the horse eats the hay, the horse eats the haaaaay, yum yum yum!” Sing farm songs…..Old MacDonald, Farmer in the Dell, etc. This will work wonders.

Provide visuals: Our kids think in pictures. If you provide visuals when playing pretend farm, this will help them with their symbolic play skills tremendously. Point, hold up an object so your child can clearly see it, gesture the actions (sleep gesture, running gesture, etc.) and more. Also providing visuals for the specific schemes you are working on will also help. Point to the pictures as you talk and play. Here are a couple examples:
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Establish play routines: Our children thrive in familiar routines not only in daily life but also in play. Play with the farm the same way until your child can independently complete the play routine. Here is an example of a play routine:
1. Wake up all the animals while singing a good morning song.
2. Have the farmer feed the animals while singing a feeding song.
3. Have each animal eat while singing an eating song.
4. Have each animal get a drink while singing a drinking song.
5. Have each animal take a nap while singing a sleeping song.

Once your child is successful with the routine, it’s time to change up the routine. You can incorporate small changes such as reordering the schemes, adding new animals, using fewer animals, creating little problems for the animals like the cow is too sleepy to wake up, or the horse runs out of hay when he is eating or the pig falls into the pond when he is taking a drink. Routines are an excellent way to teach your child and to increase their symbolic play skills but it is equally important to change up the routines when your child is ready so your child continues to learn and to promote dynamic thinking. We don’t want your child to get stuck in a pretend farm rut!

Organize your space: Look around your space where you want to play pretend farm. Are there other toys around? Will your child be tempted to play with something else? Is the TV on? Organize your space so your child will only be focusing on playing farm. Also, most farms come with many, many pieces. Our farm at KidSpeak includes a ton of pieces (farmer, tractor, multiple fence pieces, flowers, hay bales, chicken, mommy cow, baby cow, mommy pig, baby pig, mommy sheep, baby sheep, mommy horse, baby horse)…..way too many! It is likely that your child will want to play with all the pieces but this can lead to repetitive lining up of objects, dumping and filling actions, focusing on the objects instead of the symbolic play and more. This will make it very difficult for you to work on increasing their symbolic play skills. The simplest thing you can do is to keep all your pieces in a baggie and to hold onto the baggie when you are playing or to keep the baggie out of reach from your child. This way you can play with just a couple of pieces at a time while focusing on strengthening your child’s single and multiple symbolic play schemes.

Incorporate familiarity: Our kids are familiar with social games like chase, hide and seek and duck duck goose so we have the farm animals play these games together. The kids loves this because they understand the actions, know what to expect and can easily imitate the schemes. You can do the same and also add in any other fun familiar activities your child enjoys. Do you like to feed the ducks at the park with your child? This familiar activity can be carried over into pretend play. Does your child like to go horseback riding? Have the farmer go for a horseback ride at the farm!

Engage in other theme-related activities: (farm color pages, farm art, farm books, farm music, other farm toys). This really does wonders for naturally increasing your child’s vocabulary comprehension and expression and will help them increase their motivation and excitement to play pretend farm.

And of course, keep it fun! Play should feel like play and not like work. You may feel pressured to help improve your child’s symbolic play skills and at times it may get frustrating. Just remember to keep is positive, praise your child for the small accomplishments and make sure your child is having fun. They will want to play farm again and again and their confidence and play skills will naturally improve if you do so.

Higher Level Symbolic Play Skills – Role Play

If your child is successful with a variety of beginner symbolic play skills with toys, preferably engaging in multiple scheme combinations, then it is time to work on harder role play activities. Children naturally develop symbolic play skills within familiar role play activities that they experience and see firsthand in their lives. This is why pretend house and pretend mommy and daddy are usually the first role play activities you may see your child do. Also, children start out with using lots of objects, toys and props within their role play and then these are utilized less as their imaginations and Theory of Mind skills increase over time. How do you choose a role play activity to work on with your child? Think about real life experiences that they are familiar with and that they love. Pretend grocery store has always been a big hit with our kids and they love pretending to be both the “grocery shopper” and “grocery worker.” Here are some examples of the supplies we used when playing at our office:

Toy cash register:
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Toy grocery cart with “grocery shopper” visual board:
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Save empty food boxes to use as pretend groceries. You can also use toy food but since our kids use the toy food in play frequently, the empty “grocery” boxes were novel very exciting for them. They LOVED labeling and commenting about the different foods they were shopping for. If you are working on categories and additional grocery store vocabulary, you can even divide up your foods onto different tables, different shelves or different areas on the floor and make signs for the different store areas (“Produce,” “Dairy,” “Meat,” etc.):
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We also used plastic grocery bags that we had kept from our previous shopping trips. They loved loading up their cart with their bagged groceries.

Here are couple of different types of toy shopping carts and cash registers:

Little Tikes Shopping Cart
http://www.amazon.com/Little-Tikes-Shopping-Cart-Yellow/dp/B00005BZKD
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Melissa and Doug Shopping Cart
http://www.amazon.com/Melissa-Doug-4071-Shopping-Cart/dp/B000VO3GPG/ref=...
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Step2 Little Helper’s Shopping Cart
http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B002ERB4O8/ref=s9_simh_gw_p21_d0_g21_i2...
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Discovery Kids Cash Register
http://www.amazon.com/Discovery-Kids-Electronic-Cash-Register/dp/B005Q8B...
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Learning Resources Cash Register
http://www.amazon.com/Learning-Resources-Teaching-Cash-Register/dp/B0006...
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Where to Start with Pretend Grocery Store

You want to teach your child the symbolic schemes to pretend grocery store the same way you taught pretend farm. Start basic! You want your child to learn the role play schemes to both roles such as:
Grocery Shopper:
1. Push cart to food
2. Choose foods you want and place in cart
3. Push cart to grocery worker
4. Place groceries on the pretend checkout counter
5. Give worker pretend money
6. Get your bags of groceries
7. Say “thank you!”
8. Push cart away to go home

Grocery Worker:
1. Take each grocery from shopper
2. Scan each grocery
3. Place groceries in bags
4. Take shopper’s money
5. Give bags of groceries to shopper
6. Say “thank you!”

How do you teach your child to play pretend grocery store? MODEL THE PLAY! In addition to modeling, here are some other transactional supports you can provide your child with to help them develop symbolic grocery store skills:

Model: Go through each of the steps of the pretend grocery store play that you want your child to learn. Preferably you have another helper than can model the other role at the same time. If someone they trust (YOU!) is engaging in the activity first and is having fun, then your child will know what to expect and they will be more willing to try! Also, your child may need to see and hear multiple models before they are ready to try the actual play. This is okay! Just keep modeling and singing and go at your child’s pace.

SING: Sing about what you are doing. Make up tunes as you go. Sing when you want your child to imitate the play model. This will help your child attend to the play, understand what is happening, imitate the play and even comment. For example, to the tune of “Here We Go ‘Round the Mulberry Bush”: “This is the way we scan the groceries, scan the groceries, scan the groceries……this is the way we scan the groceries…..at the grocery store.”

Provide visuals: Our kids think in pictures. If you provide visuals when playing pretend grocery store, this will help them with their symbolic play skills tremendously. Point to the objects and hold up the objects as you engage in the play so your child can clearly see everything. Also having labels or nametags for each role and having the person wear the label will help out a lot. Point to the pictures as you talk and play. Here are a couple examples of visuals:
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Establish play routines: Our children thrive in familiar routines not only in daily life but also in play. Play pretend grocery store the same way until your child can independently complete the play routine within both roles. Once your child is successful with the routine, it’s time to change up the routine. You can incorporate small changes such as using a grocery basket instead of a cart, using actual toy money instead of handing over imaginary money, having your child choose only five foods instead of all of the foods, creating a shopping list and shopping for items on the list only, having a stuffed animal or baby doll go shopping with your child, etc. Routines are an excellent way to teach your child and to increase their symbolic play skills but it is equally important to change up the routines when your child is ready so your child continues to learn and to promote dynamic thinking.

Organize your space: Look around your space where you want to play pretend grocery store. Are there other toys around? Will your child be tempted to play with something else? Is the TV on? Do you have way too many pretend foods out? Organize your space so your child will only be focusing on playing grocery store. Organizing your space will help your child focus on the activity at hand and they will make faster progress.

Incorporate familiarity: Is your child used to shopping at a particular store? Print off the store’s logo from the internet and make a sign for your pretend store. Do you usually shop with reusable grocery bags? Use these within your pretend play. Do you usually shop with coupons? Incorporate pretend coupons in your play. The kids will love this and will add additional symbolic elements to their grocery store role play routines.

Engage in other theme-related activities: (grocery store color pages, grocery store art, grocery store books, go to the actual grocery store, etc.). This really does wonders for naturally increasing your child’s vocabulary comprehension and expression and will help them increase their motivation and excitement to play grocery store.

And don’t forget to keep it fun!
Here are some blog posts on a variety of fun ideas for role play activities from one of our favorite blogs “No Time for Flash Cards”:
Pizza Parlor: http://www.notimeforflashcards.com/2011/06/pizza-parlor-pretend-play-cra...
Vet Clinic: http://www.notimeforflashcards.com/2012/01/pretend-play-vet-clinic.html
Coffee Shop: http://www.notimeforflashcards.com/category/coffee-shop
Science Lab: http://www.notimeforflashcards.com/2011/03/pretend-play-science-lab.html
Camping: http://www.notimeforflashcards.com/2011/02/pretend-play-camping-and-camp...
Library: http://www.notimeforflashcards.com/2011/01/pretendplaylibrarian.html

And a cute do it yourself fire station made out of recycled materials:
DIY Fire Station: http://www.notimeforflashcards.com/2010/07/milk-carton-fire-station.html

Enjoy escaping in a world of pretend with your child!

~KidSpeak, LLC
www.kidspeakdallas.com

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