Two things I’ve noticed when working in Multiple Disabilities classrooms: (1) the students don’t know how to play with a variety of toys, and (2) there is little peer-to-peer interaction. There’s an easy way to address both of these needs while also building choice-making, visual discrimination of pictures (photos/symbols) and objects, and core language. I call this therapy activity “toy box communication.”
First, you’ll need a variety of toys that provide a variety of sensory input: movement, sound, lights, vibration. Examples include: a pull-back race car, fire truck with lights and siren, a vibrating bumble ball, a lightsaber, a light-up, musical magic wand, a fidget spinner, magnet blocks, wind-up toys, a light-up mirror, a radio or iPod, Simon game, battery-operated animals and toys, a doll that talks or cries,sound-activated toys, etc. The toys should be age-appropriate and appealing to both boys and girls. Also, consider the students’ physical abilities; battery interrupters and switches may be needed for those who can’t turn on a toy’s small switch. You’ll need a box or basket to contain the toys.
Create a communication card for each toy using labeled photos or symbols, or use these visual representations on a communication board or speech generating device, as appropriate to the students’ needs and abilities. In addition, provide a way for the students to move beyond choice-making to initiate, terminate, and comment during the activity by creating extra cards or adding messages to the communication board or device. Examples include: “my turn,” “more,” “all done,” “That was fun!,” “Boring!,” “turn it on,” “turn it off,” “stop,” “go,” and “help.” The communication cards can be Velcro’d to a clipboard, binder cover, or eye-gaze frame. Display at least three choices, or more if the students can handle a larger field.
Working with a small group of 2-3 students, I introduce a few toys to the students, naming each, describing how it works, and exclaiming when the toy operates to acquaint the students with the toys and to get their attention. I then put 3-4 picture cards on my binder cover and ask, “Who wants a turn?” Any movement or vocalization counts as “I do!”
Student #1 touches, looks at, or gives me a toy card to make a choice. I label it, “Oh, you picked the firetruck!” I then offer two toys, the firetruck and another, to see if the student selects the correct toy. I hand the student the desired toy and pause to see if the student can operate it independently. If not, I present the card for “turn it on” or “help.” When that request is made, I show the student how to operate the toy and allow the student a minute to play with it. I ask “do you want more or are you all done?,” modeling those choices on the binder. If the student selects “more,” I allow another minute. At the end of the minute, or if the student indicates “all done,” I ask the student to hand the toy to the next student for brief exploration. Once the toy has been passed to each student in the group, it goes back in the box. Then Student #2 has a turn to make and play with his/her toy selection for a minute or two, passing it around the group when finished. And so on….until everyone in the group has had 2-3 turns making toy choices or until attention to the activity fades.
Once the students have participated in this activity a few times and are showing familiarity with and even preferences for toys, I’ve added a “not here” symbol in the choice array so the students can indicate that they want something other than the 3 toys I’ve offered on the binder. “Oh, you want something different! What do you want?” The choice cards are changed to include the toy you know the student prefers, and the activity continues. It should go without saying that I am modeling, commenting, using a prompt hierarchy, and pausing throughout the activity, in a way that is individualized for each student.
The activity as described offers opportunities to practice:
- initiating a turn
- terminating a turn
- picture-object matching and discrimination
- pointing, grasping, handing, or eye-gazing to communicate
- fine motor manipulation of the toys
- accepting a variety of sensory input
- learning to give and get
- attention to and interaction with peers
- waiting and anticipation
- making comments and requests through core and fringe vocabulary
It is possible to extend this activity in many ways to build additional play, communication, and motor skills with each of the toys. Here are just a few ideas:
- Sending the pull-back car to peers.
- Rolling, kicking or throwing the ball to peers or other target
- Building/knocking down blocks
- Choosing hairstyles, accessories, makeup using the light-up mirror
- Requesting the vibrating pad for relaxation
- Making choices with radio/iPod — headphones or no headphones, what station or songs to listen to
- Extending switch use learned in this activity to operate other devices for recreation, vocational training, and communication
Using toys in this way offers so many opportunities for skill development that can transfer to other activities and settings, and that can enrich a student’s life by expanding his/her range of leisure activities.