Some say that children on the Autism Spectrum lack imagination. Perhaps this school of thought has to do with the fact that some of our children use objects that are traditionally used for imaginative play in a repetitious and exclusive fashion. For example, instead of using a plastic spoon to pretend to eat with, they may instead shake the spoon back and forth in front of their eyes or perhaps line the spoons up. It may have to do with the challenges they have with relating and connecting with others and therefore they are not as interested in learning and imitating what the people around them do. In a world that is over-stimulating in many ways, our children have enough to deal with in coping with the world around them. As I observe my own 18-month-old daughter, I notice that she is continuously pretending to do piles of laundry, rocking her baby doll and making her stuffed animals hug and kiss each other. She is observing the world around her and is trying to replicate what she has seen other people do … desiring to be just like them!
When I reflect on what it means to have an imagination, I realize that it means more to me than doing so in a socially appropriate way. You can be a writer, an artist, a poet or an innovator and be socially reserved or introverted at the same time. Perhaps it’s the way that we share or express ourselves that gets the label of whether we lack imagination or not.
The first step in helping our children unlock and express their imagination is to believe they have limitless potential and do indeed have an amazing imagination that they may not have shown us yet.
So … why is it important to incorporate imagination into our interactions with our children?
1) Social and Emotional Development: When our children start to dip their toes into the world of pretend play, they begin to experience things from someone else’s perspective. This will help our children see beyond themselves and allow them to walk in someone else’s shoes, developing an awareness and an understanding of other people’s thoughts and feelings. In a world that is unpredictable in many ways, our children will also gain control and increased self-esteem when they allow themselves to jump into a different persona and be anyone they choose. Through pretend play, we can also teach our children how to take turns and to share responsibility, allowing for a more social and reciprocal experience with our children who are so used to being exclusive and absorbed in their repetitious and exclusive activities.
How do we do it?
Use the items in your Son-Rise Program Playroom
to symbolize other things. For example, if you are bouncing your child on a ball, you could pretend that ball is a space ship, a boat or a car. Or, you could become another character by singing to them in the voice of Elmo or their favorite family member. Encourage your child to physically participate by inviting them to feed a puppet, pet a stuffed dog or take a sip of some tickling tea! Our children will learn by watching you, so show them how to play before asking them to try it.
2) Language: The use of language in an imagination game helps organize play and outlines and references what is going on when we act out a certain scene or story. This helps our children associate language with creating context or setting a scene, viewing it as a useful tool in their lives. It also allows your child to practice their language in an indirect way where anything goes (e.g. through a character).
How we do it? Have your child “play” a certain character. First show them how different characters may speak and what they may say. Make sure to pause and leave space for them to verbally participate and to be spontaneous with their language. For instance, if you are acting out a scene from Toy Story, try saying “I’ll be Buzz Lightyear and you can be Woody! Let’s pretend they are going swimming at the beach. To the ocean and beyooooond!……I’m so excited to see if the water will be warm or cold!”…………….
3) Cognitive thinking skills: Making deals and compromises with our playmates is an important part of imagination play and will help our children operate as a team with their peers, deciding who will play which character, what costumes to wear, props needed , etc. It will also help our children with sequencing and reflecting on past and future events as each scene is played out.
How to do it? Ask questions or make requests to inspire our children to participate before moving to open-ended questions and requests. For example, if playing a zookeeper game, say “Shall we feed the monkey or the tiger next?” followed by “What shall we feed the penguins?” Motivate them to help you and to work together (e.g. “I need your help to put this forest fire out!”)
When do we do this with our children? This is something to start introducing when our children have established physical interactions with us (e.g. tickling, riding, chasing, etc) and have also started to interact with shared objects and activities (e.g. ball games, puppets, simple board games, etc). We now want to start deepening the types of interactions they have with us by beginning to introduce symbolic and imaginative play into the picture. This can only be done when our children are available and are showing us they are ready and socially open (e.g. once they are looking, responding and already involved in an activity with us).
If they are already showing an interest in pretend play then go for it and help them expand their interests within the wonderful world of imagination and the possibilities to explore within!
Other helpful tips:
Allow your child TIME TO PROCESS and to make their own decisions in the game before you do all of the work for them. Give your child opportunities to compromise and follow your lead when the timing is right.
USE THEIR CURRENT INTERESTS AND MOTIVATIONS to show them how to play. Demonstrate with their favorite stuffed animals and figurines.
ALL OF THEIR INVOLVEMENT along the way, no matter how big or small!
GIVE CONTROL! If they don’t want to act something out but prefer to sit and watch, be excited and flexible during the game. The more adaptable you are, the more they will be inspired to try again later.
DON’T GIVE UP! Even if they don’t seem to understand a concept at first, it doesn’t mean they never will. When your child sees you as a role model and enjoying what you do, the more connected and motivated your child will become, the more connected and motivated they become, the more they will learn!