Quite often when I am asked to "come look at a toddler" at work and give my advice to why this child is behind in his development or he has destructive behaviors such as breaking toys, throwing things, or tearing apart other household items, I realize that the child doesn't know how to play. So much of a typically developing toddler's time is spent in play. But some of the toddlers with a delay in development are running around wild, just sitting there doing nothing, watching TV, or "getting into trouble". If they do play it may be limited such as only playing with certain toys and being perseverative in the way they play. An example of perseverative or controlling play is when a child insists on stacking blocks and doing nothing else with the blocks. If someone tries to help them make a house or train with the blocks, they get upset. This is because they have such a limited repertoire of how to play. When some of these toddlers get bored with the same old toys or not knowing how to play, they may become destructive. These behaviors the toddler has would be diminished if he just knew how to play.
That is when I come in to the picture. This means I need to be an investigator and figure out why this toddler is acting up. Is he bad because he is evil? Most likely not. I find that very rarely is there not a reason for a behavior problem. Reasons include: seizures, developmental delays (especially language- receptive and expressive), food allergies, and plain ole' not knowing how to play with toys.
Before parents are able to say "Go play with your toys" to their toddler, there are some things to consider:
- What is the child's physcial and cognitive abilities? Figure out is it really reasonable or not to expect this child to do such a thing. Does the child have the manipulation skills, muscular endurance, and problem solving abilities to play with the toys that are there.
- Can the child make choices? If he can't make choices when you verbally ask a question such as "Do you want to play with the puzzles or the trains?", then he isn't going to say this to himself and go choose an activity unaided when you go ask him to play.
- Is he motivated to play with the toys he has? If he is 2 years old and still has baby toys as opposed to "big boy" toys, then he isn't likely to go play with the toys.
- How long of an attention span does this toddler have? Do the toys require a longer attention span than he has (e.g. game boards, intricate puzzles)?
- Is there some structure to how his toys are kept and organized? If the toys are just dumped and scattered around, some toddlers are too overwhelmed by this to figure out what to go play. However, if they had toys kept in containers, shelves, baskets, or a toy box they may be more likely to know which toy to play with, especially if the adult guides them to a certain container.
- Has the parents, caregivers, or other adults in the chld's life spent enough time getting down on the floor and playing with the child? If not, then why? If it is because the adults don't have time, then make it. If it is because the adults don't remember how to play, then go get one of the many books out there on toddler games and toddler activities and read it. Just think back to things you would have liked when you were young. For example, I always wanted a sit-n-spin (R) but never had one. I played on one at a friend's house when I had the chance. So, I bought one for my daughter when she was 2 1/2, and sure enough she loved it! She didn't play with it daily, but she did enjoyed it. Browse the toy catalogs or toy aisles at the store if you are unsure of what to play. Just have fun playing!
Remember that many kids need to be shown how to play. If you show them that a toy car doesn't just get rolled back and forth but can be crashing into blocks, racing off of a table or couch, and driving under furniture as you make car noises "beep, beep" then they may then have more ideas on how to play. For toddlers and other children who tend to be rigid and controlling in their play skills, you may only be able to show them one more way to use a doll, blocks, or cars. But if you show them one new way to play per week, then within a month, they learned 4 new ways to play with toys. Before you know it, the child will have many choices of what to play when Mom hollers out "Go play in your room!".