Hello, and welcome to Therapy Connect Conversations. My name is Kirsten O’Rourke, your host for a new three-part series. In today’s conversation with Sophia Garner, we’re talking about how to build engagement in play between a child and yourself as a play partner (or a parent, carer, older sibling or family member) and how we can change our behaviour so that the child wants to stay and play with us and engage with us, enjoy the moment, and provide opportunities for learning.

Sophia is a master’s level social worker and board-certified behavior analyst with extensive experience working with individuals with a range of abilities, challenges, and concerns. Sophia has specialist training and experience working with families and clients who are experiencing challenging behaviors. 

Sophia, a common question or concern that parents have is that their child doesn’t seem interested or want to engage, turns their back, or walks away from a learning activity. We know that play and engagement in those early years is so important, but how and why can we make this an enjoyable learning experience for both us and our kids? 

It’s a really important area Kirsten as it is the foundation for all learning. If your learner isn’t wanting to engage with you at all, even within play, it’s going to be really difficult to teach them anything else and teach them these life skills that they’re needing and to be able to engage in therapy.  Many times parents expect their child to just cooperate with them, but we forget that it’s actually something you have to earn.  For some kids it can be perceived as a demanding situation if you’re trying to teach them new play skills without that foundation. 

Sophia, if it’s something that’s not coming quite naturally, how do we teach it? 

The first thing is to make sure that you’re fun. Your learner needs to know that spending time with you is a good time. Because if it’s not, they’re not going to do it or enjoy it, and you’re not going to enjoy it. So whenever you’re wanting your learner to be engaged in some type of parent-led activity I would always spend at least five minutes, in child-led play where you’re just totally following their lead. You’re making everything they’re already doing more fun by being involved with you. 

You might find with some really young learners that they might not even want you in their space, so that’s okay, right? You might need to just start there. Will they tolerate me playing next to them, will they tolerate me joining in with the activity that they’re doing, so you can play together. It’s also being really responsive with them trying to invite you into their play, so if they’re giving you looks or glances, that’s really cool engagement. We’re not trying to teach new play skills from the start. It’s just about making sure they’re okay with you being there first.

But Sophia, it’s coming back to engagement, isn’t it? The sort of learning play skills is about engagement. 

Another especially useful tip is for when you’re trying to get your learner to engage in an activity that they either haven’t done before, are unsure if they would like it, or they’re a little bit avoidant of doing it, is to control the environment by putting their favourite toys away prior. It helps you avoid challenging them to transition away from those things to another activity and to play in a different way.  Once those favourite toys are packed away before the new activity, you can go onto the next step in our chart and utilise those tasks that you’ve packed away for a little while to reinforce your learner’s engagement with you. 

Lots of really easy instructions are important because you can catch your learner cooperating in something that they were highly likely to cooperate with in the first place, right? If their favorite activity is magnetic blocks, you might say, “Come play with the magnetic blocks with me!” They would be like, sure let’s go. And you’re like, wow, you got up so fast!  It’s something that they were probably highly likely to do on their own if they saw the magnetic blocks. So, you’re just practicing hearing easy instructions and developing a really positive and strong learning history of cooperating with a teacher’s instruction or a parent’s instruction.

Sophia, I’ve sometimes counted smiles. It’s like are they showing me that they’re happy, relaxed, and engaged? Are they staying in the area? Are they not moving away from me? Are they following those really simple, easy instructions? Are there any social bids to engage with them? It doesn’t have to be like come and play with me. However you’re going to communicate so they come in next to you.

If they’re showing you that they’re okay with you being there and being involved and having a bit of balance between child-led and parent-led or teacher-led instructions, or rules, instructions, or just even play, you can then follow the child’s lead in this particular area. Having a balance between those two things show’s you it’s been successful.

Thank you, Sophia. Some really good tips to take away and we also have some extra resources we can share with our parents and caregivers.  Is there anything else you’d like to share Sophia? 

Yes, it’s important to be trustworthy and say what you mean. Something that I see all the time is parents or teachers asking a question when they mean it as an instruction, so they say, “Can you come and do this?” And the child will either verbally or non-verbally indicate that, no, I don’t want to do that. Or, they just don’t respond to you or they move away. And we want to make sure that we’re honoring that. 

Sophia, that trust is so important for engagement.  And just developing that trust and honoring what we say.  And thinking about our questioning as well, rephrasing rather than a ‘can you’.  Thank you Sophia. You’ve outlined some ideas that are so helpful and can be used across a variety of situations. Therapy Connect is a private allied health, tele-health practice, supporting clients around Australia, particularly NDIS clients that are needing access to speech pathology, occupational therapy, psychology, social worker, dietetics, or physiotherapy. If you’d like some more information about our services, you can visit our website at www.therapyconnect.com.au, or you can contact our client services team on 1300 757 806.