Lesson 7 Expanding Interests


When we tell parents the first thing we want to do is teach their child to ask for things they want, they frequently say, “But he doesn’t want anything!” All children want something and there are things we can do to increase both the variety and number of things they want, this is called increasing potential reinforcers. It is imperative that we “teach” the child to enjoy many things so that we can increase the opportunities for teaching as well as give them activities to participate in that are more fun (reinforcing) than “stimming”.


Pair with Reinforcement

The most important thing to remember is that any time you introduce a new toy or activity; you want to “pair” it with “reinforcement”. In other words, doing something the child might not enjoy a great deal in combination with something you know he does enjoy. This same idea holds true no matter what new activity you’re introducing. Any reinforcer can be used to “pair.”  For example, if the child enjoys being held tightly, pair this activity with reading a book. If he likes to watch things spin, choose toys or activities that have spinning parts. If he likes silly voices, use them while playing with him. If he likes music, sing or exaggerate the inflection on your voice while interacting with him.


Take Turns

Some children love playing with new toys but others are very hesitant to participate in new activities. New toys should only be introduced after the child is readily tolerating the instructor taking a “turn” choosing toys/activities from those that the child already enjoys. When introducing a new toy or activity, introduce it during “your turn” and follow the basic pairing procedure. Be silly and animated while playing with the toy and try to find an aspect of the toy or activity that the child enjoys. Say the same words or make the same sounds each time you engage in the activity. 

If the child does not tolerate the introduction of new activities very well, you may choose to have the child just watch you having fun with the new activity while eating some of his favorite snack or drinking some juice (pairing with an established reinforcer). You’ll know when the child is ready to play with the new toy or interact with you during the new activity when you see him begin to smile and reach for the objects within the activity.

If the child does not get into the activity, it is okay to end your turn and try again at a different time or try a different toy. Watch carefully for any signs of escape behaviors and wait for a compliant behavior to quickly end the activity. Always remember that you can’t teach a child to request something he doesn’t want and it may take some time before the child is motivated to engage in a new activity.

Start Mands/Fill-ins

After the activity has been paired, we can teach the child to ask for the activity or various pieces or parts within the activity. If the child is non-vocal, you can teach him to ask for the activity using signs or pictures, i.e. if you’re playing with sand and the child enjoys watching you pour the sand, teach him to request “pour” at the appropriate time. You can also begin to pause before the last word to see if he will “fill-in” the last word, i.e. Look sand! I need to ____ (pour).” This is an intraverbal response, but also a mand because the child wants the activity to happen/continue

Stimmy Toys Only with People

Many of the first toys and activities chosen to introduce to the child may be considered “stimmy” toys. For example, tops, spinning wheels, gears, or ribbon sticks. In other words, if left alone with the toy, the child may choose to watch it or interact with it over and over in a repetitive way. It is important not to let the child “play” with the toy in this fashion because, self-stimulating behaviors tend to reinforce themselves.  We don’t want to increase the child’s self-stimulating behaviors by allowing them unlimited access to these toys. What we are trying to do is pair the reinforcer (stimmy toy) with talking and interacting with you. These toys should be kept up and away to only be played with when engaged with an adult. It is important that the instructor maintain control over the toy or parts of the toy to keep the child from “stimming” and ignoring the instructor! If you find one toy or activity the child is interested in, try to find others that may offer the same or similar sensory stimulation to the child or use it to pair even more varied toys and activities

Cause -Effect Toys

Another set of toys or activities to look closely at are those which combine some “cause and effect” with pretend play. For example, a car wash that really squirts water, stoves that make bubbles when you cook or toy sinks that squirt out real water when they’re pushed. If the child enjoys the “cause and effect” part of the toy, you can often get the child to respond to you by controlling that part of the toy yourself. For example, if the child wanted to see the bubbles from the stove, he’s more likely to request, “cook” if you’re holding onto the burner knob!  

Avoid Questions

One of the biggest mistakes people make is to sit down with the child to “play” and start asking a bunch of questions. This isn’t play, it’s testing, and the child may find it aversive. Instead, it’s typically best to avoid placing demands on the child and just enjoy the toy with him/her (non-contingent reinforcement). For example, many children enjoy “silly” voices and exaggerated intonation patterns, especially children who also prefer music. If this is the case, you might sing or say the same series of words as you play with the toy with a “melodic” tone to your voice. For example, if you were bouncing the child on a therapy ball, you could say, “bouncy ball, bouncy ball, all fall down”. Roll the child off the ball as you say “down”. If this is done repeatedly and the child is enjoying the activity, it is likely that you will begin to notice him looking at you expectantly when you get close to saying “down.” Begin pausing before saying down and you may find the child filling-in the word “down” for you!  This fill-in then becomes a behavior we can reinforce, shape and transfer to other functions of language (verbal operants). 

Avoid Narration

Try to avoid simply narrating what you see the child doing and instead participate in it.  For example, if the child is rolling a train on a track, get another train and pretend to crash into his train or chase his train around the track. If he appears to be repeating the same activity over and over, interrupt him in a playful manner. For example, if the child is running in circles around the room, swoop him up into the air and “fly” him around the room instead.

Desensitize to Presence of Toy

Some children just need to be around a new toy for a while before they will begin interacting with it. If the child has this type of history, just leave the toy in the room for a few days untouched. Gradually begin playing with the toy yourself, when the child is in the room but a distance away. Let the child see you put the toy in a location where it’s visible but not accessible. Wait until the child comes to you while you’re playing with the toy rather than going to him with it. Just because a child runs from a toy the first time it’s presented doesn’t mean that he won’t enjoy it later! Remember, the toy has the potential of becoming a conditioned reinforcer!


Vary the Play Script

Be aware that some children get very “stuck” in having to play with a toy or hear a story in the exact same way every time.  Because of this tendency, a toy that the child appeared to love while playing with mommy isn’t the least interesting when playing with daddy!  If this appears to be happening with a child, carefully watch the person he seems to be enjoying the toy or activity with to help determine what the child is finds pleasurable in the activity.  Perhaps it’s a silly voice or the way a specific word is said.  While we don’t necessarily want to encourage this apparent need for “sameness”, we can use the information to determine how we might make the same toy just as fun (potential reinforcer) for the child but in a different manner.

Monitor Arousal Level

Be aware that some children become increasingly excited when interacting with some toys, especially “stimmy” toys. If the child appears to become very active and seems to be unable to focus on what you’re doing, take a break and do a different type of activity that involves different stimuli. For example, if a child begins jumping up and down and clapping while playing with a top you might ask him to sit then take a break and engage in an activity with a history of calming the child. You have to be careful not to unintentionally reinforce any negative behaviors by reacting to the child’s behavior. Use the information but wait to switch to another activity when the child is exhibiting a desirable behavior if the new activity may be preferred over the current one.


Beginning Play Review

review beginning play. These teaching techniques have been found to increase the child’s interest in people and/or toys.  Remember the goal at this point is that the child “allows you” to enter his play and you become part of the reinforcement he is getting from the situation.

  1. Build anticipation- Repeat the same words or sequence of movements over and over in the same manner then pause. 
  2. Do something unexpected- Repeat an activity in the same manner then all of a sudden change the routine. 
  3. Imitate what the child is doing then make a game of it.
  4. Interrupt the child’s “play” by playfully obstructing.
  5. Pair words/sounds with what the child is doing.
  1. Do something unexpected. 
  2. Use exaggerated facial expressions/body movements to “stand out.”
  3. Create meaning- Even if you don’t think the child said a “real word”, listen to the sounds he’s making and act as is if they have meaning.
  4. Introduce other “characters” into the play.


Avoid Killing the Reinforcer

Each child is different so you’ll have to watch closely to determine when to begin gradually adding more “demands” to the activity.  Once the child is asking for the toy or activity, you can increase the number of things he asks for before getting the end result (transitive EO). For example, once a child is consistently requesting to play with a ball, put it into a see-through container and teach him to ask you to “open” the container. Later, you can teach him to ask you to “roll” or “bounce” the ball or perhaps you could give choices of different colored balls for him to request. The important thing is to not increase the demands so quickly that the child doesn’t want to participate any longer. This is often referred to as “killing the reinforcer.” In essence, the increase in demands is now making escape more valuable than the activity. This is often the case when parents report that their child used to really like a particular toy or activity but no longer does.


Another way to “kill the reinforcer” is to allow so much access to it that it no longer becomes reinforcing (satiation).  For example, the child may really like to play with balloons with you but if you do it 10 times a day, every day, it may not be so fun anymore! Occasionally stop an activity when the child is highly motivated for it but be sure to change to something that will still be reinforcing. By continually exploring new toys and activities the child enjoys, gradually increasing demands and varying your activities frequently, you can keep the value of the toy or activity high.

Expand Play

You can also expand the play by adding new “pieces” to the routines or new characters into the play. For example, if the child enjoys watching animals go around the track on the train, perhaps it’s time to stop the train and take them to the zoo or the farm, wherever they happen to live. Take a reinforcing activity and add a new part of the sequence to enable you to teach new things. Again, be careful not to add too many demands too quickly or the child may lose interest in the activity or at least choose to play with it only when you’re not around!


Use the “piece” of the play that the child enjoys as a reinforcer for performing other activities.  For example, if the child enjoys putting clothes on a doll, change clothes as necessary to go play in the ocean or go to the park!  If the child enjoys playing with animals, have them (the animals) decide they want to do something different.

Use videos for Play scripts

Another way to begin more elaborate play is to use the child’s favorite videos. Get the characters in the video and start acting out some of the situations on the video. Pause the video and have the toy characters repeat the same situation that was just observed. This is also a way of pairing the toys with reinforcement and gives the child a “script” to use while playing. Gradually change the script to be sure the child does not get “stuck” in only re-creating the video for the most functional play.

Teach Language

Once the child is readily manding for many aspects of the toy or activity, begin transfers to other functions of language (verbal operants).  For example, you may teach the child to receptively identify the shovel as he is cleaning up so he can take his turn, begin transferring from requests (mands) to labels (tacts), begin teaching FFCs through the use of fill-ins (i.e. something we dig with is a ..R=shovel) or begin teaching imitation skills as you prompt the child to imitate what you do with the toy.


Slow Language

Be careful! While attempting to teach during play, it is tempting for to continue the rapid paced speech and multiple questions used during intensive teaching sessions while playing with toys. This should be avoided at all costs. Instead, model tacts, get some receptive response and focus on manding (requesting). Give the child options for directing which way the play scheme should develop.  For example, if you’re playing with Barney and he becomes “sick”, should you take him to the doctor or the park? If Loftie can’t lift a big pipe, should Scoop help him or should he put it down? Giving the child options allows him to continue manding but expanding the play.


Play should “look different” than work!

We recommend that you use play to teach a child new things and save the intensive teaching session for increasing the speed and accuracy (fluency) of responding to multiple tasks in a mixed and varied fashion whenever possible. Doing so will increase the likelihood that the skills will generalize and will also make the learning situation more fun for everyone! In addition, we have found that more functional and appropriate targets are typically chosen if they are chosen based on the way the child plays with toys and interacts with his environment. In fact, early targets from other verbal operants should be chosen based on items the child has mastered as requests (mands). If he hasn’t asked for it, there’s no need to include it in his early repertoire.

Teach Targets

Once talking and playing have been so heavily paired with reinforcement that they are reinforcing in and of themselves, the child will be ready to learn things in which he is not necessarily interested. At this point, targets can be added from typical developmental vocabulary lists.

Build Flexibility

There comes a time in each child’s life when they don’t always get to play with toys the way they want and to “boss” everyone around to do what they want to do. During our early teaching we want the child doing these things as learn “I talk, I get” and to develop new play schemes with just a little coaxing and varying from the adult “play partners.” Sometimes this type of play will create “manding monsters” where the child insists that all play, from which puzzle piece should go next to which way a train track should run, has to be determined by him.

However, if we want the child to learn to play with other children, we have to teach them that they do not always get to “direct” the play. We teach the beginnings of this when we insist on taking turns in their directed play and can expand this teaching by taking turns coming up with “ideas” in later play. For example, while building a marble run game or a block structure, take turns coming up with different “ideas” as to what parts should be put on next. If the “idea” works, the child can be taught to compliment the “play partner.” If not, “Oh, well” maybe the next idea will work

Play Out Social Situations

More advanced play can also be used to re-create specific social situations in which the child may be having difficulty. For example, if the child does not play well on the playground with other children, playing with playground toys can teach different options of things to do on the playground. Or, if the child has had a specific “run in” with another child, acting the problem out can be used to teach the child a different way to respond in the same situation in the future. It’s role playing with dolls or toys.

Have Fun!

The basic idea to remember about play at any level is that it should be fun! By carefully adding in demands and constantly striving to find and create new things the child will enjoy, we can insure that he learns in a manner that will allow him to generalize his communication skills to other people, places and things.

 Tracy Vail,MS,CCC/SLP

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