#314 How Play Differs Among Toddlers with Typical Developing Skills, Language Delay, and Autism


(Play Ideas for Cars too!)

At teachmetotalk.com parents and therapists ask me for specific activities. Lately a couple of different people have asked me for some new play ideas for cars. One insightful mom took it a step further and asked this great question:

“What if your just-turned three-year-old boy is into cars, trucks and buses? How does pretend play look for a child with normally developing language? And what would it look like for a child with language delay or with possible autism?”

Today for the show I thought we’d combine both of these questions. Let’s talk about the differences in how play looks first and then we’ll finish up with play ideas for cars!

Typically Developing 3 Year Old

  • Combines longer play scenarios and exhibits “planning.” For example, for a birthday party a child may set up the party, bake the cake, welcome her guests, and then act out singing “Happy Birthday” and blowing out the candles. With cars a child will string together several related events. On the show we discussed examples.
  • Uses new endings for familiar events or play routines.
  • Begins role play and fantasy play.
  • Builds things and substitutes items during play.
  • Talks out loud in short 3 to 4 word sentences as he plays along with a variety of noises and sound effects. Uses language to mediate or control events so he’s narrating what he’s doing as he plays to himself and with other people. Cars may talk to each other or he’s talking about the cars or to the cars as he plays.

There will be some variation in this according to temperament. Kids who are quieter will naturally talk less than a child who is naturally more chatty. Toddlers who seem to shut down under pressure may talk less if they think you are listening. Children who like your attention may talk more in an attempt to pull you in to play, especially if you’ve been super fun before.


Language Delay

A 3 year old child with just a language delay will do the same kinds of things in play. Remember the examples:

  • Combines longer play scenarios and exhibits “planning.”
  • Uses new endings for familiar events or play routines.
  • Begins role play and fantasy play.
  • Builds things and substitutes items during play.

The main difference is the complexity and maturity of language. You won’t hear the same amount of words – less variety, shorter utterances. He may only use sound effects and more single words and occasional phrases.


Autism or Red Flags for Autism

Now let’s look at how a child with autism or red flags for autism might look as he plays with cars.

  • Not as much variety during play
  • Less mature play – child may still explore or construct rather than playing
  • See more repetitive or self-stimulatory movements
  • May exhibit less flexibility in other ways during play
  • Difficult time letting another person join at all – pretty solitary
  • Child may fixate on a certain play action
  • Less true pretending
  • Limited language if there’s a significant language delay
  • For a child who is echolalic, you may hear a favorite script related to cars, but you’ll not little spontaneous language.

Listen to the show:

Top 10 Play Ideas with Cars

  1. Plastic Tubes – buy from a home improvement store like Lowe’s or Home Depot
  2. Make Ramps – go simple with an open cardboard book or swipe a cookie sheet from the kitchen
  3. Water play – car wash or “bath”
  4. Drive through paint – great for kids who are obsessed with watching the wheels
  5. Make tracks in play-doh
  6. Sensory box or tray – crumbled up Oreos for “dirt”
  7. Masking tape on the floor
  8. TEACCH activity (on my DVD Steps to Building Verbal Imitation Skills in Toddlers)
  9. Big transport truck that holds lots of cars
  10. Color Sort – use as a transition activity for kids obsessed with colors who don’t usually play many toys – receptive language and listening practice too

If you’d like more information about setting goals for toddlers with language delays, check out this post and Teach Me To Talk: The Therapy Manual.



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1 Comment

  1. Sandra on July 9, 2017 at 4:46 pm

    I’ve used paper toilet and towel rolls and ran cars through those. I’ve ran cars through shaving cream pretending it was “snow” making “hills” “up and down”. Also can use strips of bubble wrap to make “bumpy” road. I’ve worked with OTs who are so great with sensory ideas! I’ve color sorted too! I’ve made up little “dittys” to sing along like “blue blue blue, we are all the color blue” I’ve also used “cool sand” to drive cars through!

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