Adding Sensory Components to Pretend Play

I am retired now from clinical practice, but I can’t stop looking at any activity and tweaking it to provide sensory stimulation. For example, I came across the following excellent Instagram family sharing posts on how they increase communication and pretend play skills. The (adorable) little boy, Theo has associated the Ipad toothbrush picture with the real one and then he brushes the toy teeth. Pretend play is a critical skill that children with autism sometimes need assistance to develop. Parents should offer lots of opportunities to associate everyday actions such as feeding a baby doll or brushing a doll’s teeth to make these associations- with lots of repetitions of the words “toothbrush”. Below the post, I share possible adaptations that build on these skills and provide sensory input….

Movement, Vibration, Weighted Materials, lights….

  1. Let’s get the hands moving! Provide lots of sturdy (use Lotto or similar cards or laminate pictures) picture cards of toothbrushes. Add lots of pictures of other unrelated familiar objects (i.e. cars, pizza, shoes) . Then ask the child to pick out all of the toothbrush pictures from the big pile and insert only the toothbrushes into a container. Turn it into a game: “No way, that car is not a toothbrush! You can’t brush your teeth with a car!”
  2. Start out using pictures that are all identical toothbrushes, mixed amongst the other pictures. Then provide toothbrushes that vary in color and size. Incorporate learning these concepts with directions like ” Wow, you found the red toothbrush, red like my tomatoes!”
  3. Add gross motor to the activity by placing the picture cards in small stacks around the room – under a chair, on a shelf etc. so that the child needs to move up and down and all around to retrieve them… Movement provides vestibular sensory input that motivates and promotes learning.
  4. Provide toothbrushes with vibration or flashing lights. The child can use these to brush teeth of various dolls or pictures of people, animals etc.
  5. Provide a container holding a vibrating device with a slot opening to insert the toothbrush picture cards… If you make the slot opening big enough to allow the toothbrush pictures to be inserted, but too small for other pictures to be inserted…. you can give directions like: ” oh, that picture of a house is too big and doesn’t fit. Let’s find only all of the toothbrush pictures for now.”
  6. Add some heavy objects , maybe rocks to the bottom of the bottle so that the child receives the proprioceptive sensory input of both weight and vibration. Proprioception sensory adaptations stimulate the muscles and joints helping children develop motor planning and body awareness.
  7. If you provide cards that require force to insert thru the slit- the child receives further proprioceptive sensory stimulation. But make sure that this is not soooo challenging that the child loses interest.

Of course, any adaptation should be at just the right level in order for the child to engage and succeed…. Lots of small steps and tweaks to familiar and favored themes will go a long way….

Suggested Pretend Play Themes

  1. driving car
  2. feeding a doll
  3. making doll dance
  4. washing doll’s hands
  5. washing a toy car

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