Therapeutic Home Environment: Room to play + Things to play with

Creating the right home environment for play and learning + choosing suitable developmental Play Materials and Toys

  1. Do you often feel that you don’t know what to play with your child?
  2. Do you worry that buying more toys isn’t the answer as your child doesn’t play with anything?
  3. Do you wish someone would show you play materials and strategies that help your child to learn to play?

Children need a child-centred home environment with space to play and developmentally appropriate well organised play-materials they can reach easily to explore and play with.

All children need purposeful activities to do, like making things (e.g. crafts) and things to explore and play with. The most valuable play materials are NOT expensive man-made toys. Everyday objects and playthings with no specific purpose or function have a much higher play value.

Structure at home means structure in your child’s mind. Research confirms that children from well-organised homes with space to play, clear daily routines and freely accessible storage for their play materials have less developmental, language and behavioural problems, and are more successful at school and in later life.

Some simple changes in the family home as suggested by the Autism Home Consultant often lead to dramatic changes in the autistic child’s behaviour and communication as well as in family relationships.

Frequently Asked Questions

If you have a question that I haven't answered here, then please contact me and I will be happy to help you.

Click on any of the questions

What to do, when there’s no space to play in a small house or flat?

Children who grow up in small city flats also need space to play and it is crucial to organise things in order to maximize the limited space available.

Even though there may be limited floor space, there is always space along the walls that can be used by putting up shelves.

Then boxes can be stacked in the shelves or on top of each other, one container per activity. AVOID large ‘toy-boxes’ full of unspecified ‘stuff’, where nobody can find anything.

The play materials must be easily accessible to a child and not require him to have to ask an adult for everything. Otherwise children may end up in front of the TV or computer, losing time to play and think and for their brains to grow and develop.

Do we really need a table and child’s chair?


Having a suitable place to sit and play makes all the difference in helping children to pay attention, concentrate and occupy themselves meaningfully. When a young child sits on an adult chair without a cushion or booster seat, the table comes to their shoulders and they are too low to be able to reach or use their arms without pain. Try kneeling on the floor to eat your dinner or write a letter on the table: it’s really uncomfortable and you won’t want to do it for long. This is what it feels like for young children who don’t have a suitable chair.

Make sure the chair is solid so an adult can sit on them too, and your child can’t easily tip over backwards. All young children love to be high up and a suitable high chair can really help with meal-times and table-top activities. The child loves to be ‘up’, - and it will take him a bit longer to get back down. Some families invest in a solid wooden TripTrap high chair that can be adjusted along with the growing child.

He’s loves the iPad and TV is always on, but he doesn’t play and he’s still not talking.

The TV talks a lot, but it does not listen.

Children cannot play when their imagination is tied up with electronic images and they don’t learn to talk, when there is nobody listening and paying attention to what they have to say. When the TV is on all the time, people talk less in families and children end up with language-delay and emotional behaviour problems. TV and screen-electronics suck out and steal the child’s own pictures and imagination, filling it instead with electronic visual ‘junk’ that is unhealthy and very difficult to get rid of. . I call them ‘The Vampire of the Mind’!

Research now shows that for every hour of watching educational videos promising to help with language development, the young child learns 5 words LESS than a child who plays with other people and does not watch videos! The brain of young children who spent more than 1 hour a day in front of TV or other  electronic device are wired differently than those who had more interactive experiences with parents and other adults before they were 2 years old.

Children need to be able to play freely using their own imagination in order to develop language and to build their mind.

Can you recommend activities for an aimless autistic child, who doesn’t play or ‘do anything’?

Helping or getting your child involved with everyday tasks is the simplest and most important opportunity for playful interaction with adults as well as sequencing, finishing a task and self-help skills:

  • Cooking and helping with food preparation in the kitchen: washing lentils, peeling cucumbers/potatoes, grating carrots/ cheese, shelling fresh peas or beans …
  • Washing up, drying up, putting away clean cutlery and dishes, - helps also with sorting and categorising
  • Washing machine: putting in dirty washing, separating light from dark colours, emptying washing machine, hanging up washing, using the dryer, folding clean washing, matching socks, sorting each family member’s clean folded clothes
  • Sweeping and mopping the floor is also great physical exercise and a satisfying task to see dirt disappear and making the floor wet first, and then nice and shiny
  • Hoovering, - most children love using the big hoover and watching how they can make dirt disappear
  • Cleaning the bath, sink, other surfaces …
What kind of toys or play materials do you recommend?

Good toys and play materials are those that can be used in many different ways. They encourage the child to use their mind for problem-solving, creativity and imagination, and to develop their physical, social, interactive and symbolic skills.

Among the best play materials are to be found in the recycling box or among everyday household things like: curtain rings, muffin tin, kitchen roll holder, clothes pegs, …

+ photo from back of my book

Some examples of toys with a ‘high play value’:

  • Wooden Bricks or Blocks, best in plain colours and without any letters or numbers on them. Make sure you have enough bricks (about 100) and a solid container to store them in, like a box with a lid.
  • Teddies,  soft animals and dolls
  • Little Play People and Animal Families
  • Plasticine and Play Dough
  • Construction games such as Lego, marble runs, Meccano, … that allow the child to make and construct things. Duplo is good for small children, but avoid the large bags of cheap stackable plastic bricks: they have a very limited play-value, because the bricks are too big and there are never enough to really create a proper house or car …
  • Board games and other games with rules, such as Lotto-games, ‘Snakes and Ladders’, …
What are toys or play things with a ‘high play value’?

Toys with a high play value stimulate the imagination, because they can be used in many different ways. Good examples are: wooden building blocks, Lego, dolls, little people and animals, recycling boxes, scarves, sella tape ..

Questions to ask when looking for toys:

  1. Are there lots of different things to use and play with this, i.e. is it multi-functional, versatile, imaginative, symbolic, …?
  2. Does it encourage the child’s imagination, i.e. to think ‘What can I (the child) do with this?’
  3. Can it easily be made interactive/ sociable, i.e. can others join in easily?

Check List for Good Toys:                                                      

  • multi-functional + versatile, NOT restricted, fixed/ right-wrong use, limited to this toy
  • contained/ containable, e.g. in a box, NOT too many bits that will easily get lost
  • solid/ safe, NOT breakable/ unsafe
  • replaceable, NOT precious/ expensive
  • interactive, social, NOT solitary, can only be played with alone
  • cooperative (playing together), NOT competitive (I win - you win)
  • playful + fun, NOT coercive, must be done ‘the right way’
  • creative + growth-promoting, NOT making time pass without being meaningful
  • encourages imagination, NOT mechanical responses, pressing button only
What are ‘lazy toys’?

Watching electronic screens, whether TV, videos, mobiles, iphones, computers or ‘flashy flashy noisy noisy toys’ inhibits children’s imagination and language development. These are all ‘lazy toys’ that make a child’s mind passive and ‘lazy’. ‘Lazy toys’ don’t help your child to play or learn. They don’t help him to use his mind to think for himself. Instead they fill up his mind with adult-made visuals and steal his time from talking with others, exploring his ideas or playing imaginatively.

Children need space and time with TV and all electronics switched off

When the TV is on in the room, or any other electronic screen, some or all of a child’s (and adult’s) attention is hijacked by its constantly moving colours and sounds, leaving no internal space for his own imagination, ideas or thinking. This is so damaging to children’s brain and mental development that the American Association of Paediatricians recommend NO TV or electronic screens AT ALL in their first 2 years and no more than 1 hour a day until the age of 5!