Saturday, February 8, 2014

Teaching Kids to Play: Unoccupied Play

Unoccupied Play is not seen much past the infancy stage in typical developing children.  The child is uninterested in toys or exploring their surrounding.  They tend to stay in one place and make seemingly random gestures or movements. For an infant or young child these gestures and movements are an attempt to interact with and learn about the environment.  Older children who may be stuck in the Unoccupied Play stage are sometimes referred to as "stimming", relatively common for kids with autism, neurological or developmental disabilities.  Children who have suffered trauma and as a result have PTSD or have other mental health issues may appear to be in Unoccupied Play when they dissociate from reality.

It can be difficult to interact with children who are engaging in unoccupied play or stimming/dissociative behaviors.  If your child is engaging in unoccupied play behaviors after the infancy stage you will first want to figure out the underlying reason.  Many children use these behaviors to manage anxiety, fear, anger, and other negative emotions or help themselves handle overwhelming sensory input (too much noise, light, heat, etc).   If you can identify the cause of the unoccupied play behavior it will be easier to choose what strategies to try and keep them actively engaged in play.

Here are some things you can try to move past unoccupied play behaviors:

Play music in background
Provide environment with different colors and patterns
Provide toys with different textures
Singing Songs
Use sing-song voice when talking to child
Use expressive and excited voice tones
Provide positive reinforcement for interacting with toys/others
Provide positive reinforcement for making eye contact
Begin teaching the specific skills needed for Solitary Play
Re-direct child to toy

If you have difficulty getting your child out of the Unoccupied Play stage you may need additional assistance from OT (Occupational Therapist) or ABA (Applied Behavior Analyst).

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