Doing, Moving and Playing with Things:
Waldon Approach & Hands on Play

Learning to learn and sensory integration through movement with the Waldon Approach, everyday and craft activities

  1. Does your child just run, jump or wander aimlessly all day without ever settling down to play?
  2. Is your child constantly mouthing or twiddling something?
  3. Does your child refuse to play with you or to let you show him how to play?

It is our hands that make us human. The human brain made a huge developmental leap in evolution, when our opposable thumb allowed us to grasp and throw and do so many things that no other animals can do.

Here are some more ideas: 

Play with simple things found easily in our house 

'We contacted Sibylle for our 8 year old son with ASD. It was wonderful to work with Sibylle as she has a very holistic approach. We as parents got a totally new outlook and perspective about our son and the autism diagnosis after working with Sibylle. She made us realise the importance of how important is to have a separate play area for your child. The best thing was, she showed us how to play with our son through simple household things that we had in our kitchen like potatoes, onions, carrots in a fun way without giving instructions and many verbal prompts. I was so amazed to realise that my son understood much better, when I did NOT give him verbal instructions. She taught us 'to show his hands' and that we don’t need just toys to play with our child, but we can play with simple things found easily in our house, or get him involved in household activities. He LOVES washing up, - which would never have occurred to me, because I was so focussed on talking and trying to get him to talk. Now he 'talks' much more with clear gestures and he pays much more attention. I can see that speech might come as he is more 'with us' and interested in the world.' Seema, Kahlid's mum

The muscles of hand and mouth are also closely related, which means that as children learn to use their hands more for grasping and exploring (rather than their mouths as babies do), their language development will also progress.

The psychological development of the child depends on his hands to explore his/her own body and the world around him.  Learning comes from activity and movement, not intellectual understanding or rote-learning. 

The Waldon Approach is an integrated developmental approach that provides the learner with appropriate guidance and suitably flexible play materials to build their basic understanding of ‘how things work’ as well as practicing spatial awareness through exploring and discovering the similarities, differences, regularities and patterns of the world, i.e. learning how to learn. It helps child and parents to find something purposeful to do, supports focussing, attention and motivation as well as visuo-spatial processing, hand-eye coordination, sensory integration, crossing the mid-line and staying with a task. These activities are most beneficial, when done daily at home with parents.

The ‘Learning-how-to-learn’ Waldon Approach helps children and adults with autism, developmental delay and/or communication difficulties to ‘learn how to learn’ by building up their ‘general understanding’, the basis of all further learning.  It is based on the work of Dr. Geoffrey Waldon, a paediatric neurologist who believed that learning difficulties are the result of a lack of ‘general understanding’ and a lack of ‘understanding understanding’.

Dr. Geoffrey Waldon developed an educational method of helping a child to learn through hands-on experience and guided movement activities that are both effortful yet simple, and lay the foundation for all other learning. A Waldon session is set up in such a way that there is no 'right or wrong' way of doing things and whatever the child does is going to be successful and valuable experience. This reduces anxiety and other difficult feelings, helps with motivation and leads to an increase in attention, interest and new learning.

It is a theory about the most basic elements of human learning and development. Children with developmental delay, learning difficulties or various disabilities often do not spontaneously explore and learn from their environment. By helping the child through the developmental sequence of simple movement activities with everyday objects we can help them to build the foundation on which language and all further learning can build.

The activities and materials used in Waldon lessons aim to create enjoyable self-motivating activities that are done for their own sake and for the pleasure of ‘doing it’, i.e. not for praise or to satisfy the expectation of a teaching adult. In fact, it is when unexpected things happen (otherwise also known as ‘mistakes’!) that new understanding happens and real learning occurs. By providing the learner with appropriate guidance and suitably flexible play materials, we help to build his/her basic understanding as well as practicing spatial awareness through exploring and discovering the similarities, differences, regularities and patterns of the world, i.e. learning how to learn. 

Every child can learn, if our focus is on the child’s potential, i.e. on what the child CAN do rather than on what they cannot do, whatever his challenges, diagnosis or learning difficulties. With well enough informed help, a child who has missed out due to sensory-emotional or learning difficulties or other challenges can catch up with what he has missed out and continue to learn, whatever his diagnosis or developmental delay.

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Frequently Asked Questions

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Why would you be looking for the Waldon approach?

The child who is aimless, lacks interest and motivation to play and explore the world around, misses out on a wide range of vital experiences that are the necessary foundation of all learning, language and mental development.

Without using their hands to explore and act purposefully on the world, a child will become increasingly stuck in repetitive auto-sensuous habits that will exacerbate his developmental delay leading to increasing behavioural problems.

The Waldon approach provides us with a developmental model and simple practical activities that are easy to do and materials that are easily available to parents at home. The main problem is usually how to field the child’s refusal and resistance, which the Autism Home Consultant will help you to understand and manage.

How is the Waldon approach different from behaviourist approaches like ABA

The Waldon approach is a developmental approach that starts with where the child is at developmentally and focusses on helping the child gain confidence in small steps.

The Waldon approach is directive, but developmental. Initially we work with the child hand-over-hand and without talking, so he can feel and sense ‘how it works’ without the added complication of listening and decoding spoken instructions. But the focus is not to teach the child, what he cannot do yet, but on helping him/her to learn from his own experiences through simple movement activities and to always be successful.

Why is movement so important?

Movement is really a child’s first language. Babies need to explore the world around them, first their own body, then the world of objects through adults providing everyday objects that are interesting for a baby to touch, hold, suck and investigate with all his senses. Already this requires movement.

But once the child has become more mobile, he must be allowed to move about so he can encounter more of the world around him. This is essential for learning and healthy brain development, including language and play. Children, who have not gone through the natural experience of all these developmental movement stages, need to catch up with what they have missed (see also our section: ‘Every child can learn’).

Sensory-motor play, movement games or body-gymnastics are sometimes the only way in to reach and engage children who spend a lot of time in their comfort zone. Movement integrates the nervous system and is therefore extremely regulating and organising.

Sensitive sensory stimulation from an attentive adult can ‘wake them up’ and get them more interested in the world around them. However, we must be careful not to let it turn into mechanical movement of just going through the motions. Make sure you keep the play alive, soulful, interactive and emotionally engaging. Have fun TOGETHER!

Does the Walson approach address sensory integration issues?

Sensory integration happens in the child’s body-mind, when children move and explore, when they climb trees, sweep the floor, wash the dishes or the car. It involves a child feeling their own body when making their own effort, so that their hands, arms, legs, eye, ears and mind all work together. With feelingful support and focus on emotions, human beings can overcome all sorts of internal or external challenges.

Waldon activities clearly have sensory integration aspects, starting with a focus on movement as being primary to all learning. Another important aim is 'continuant' behaviour', which is  unique to the Waldon approach, and not necessarily part of office-based sensory integration sessions. ‘Continuant behaviour’ is the child's capacity to keep going with an activity, because he s/he is motivated and interested in exploring for themselves 'what happens, when I do ...?', and without requiring prompts or encouragement from another person. 

Children learn-through-doing how far they can reach with their arms and hands, about crossing the mid-line, visuo-spatial processing, hand-eye coordination or trunk stability in order to turn around to pick something up from behind. The focus is on learning to play using their hands, and learning to sit and stay.

Sensory integration is not limited to sessions in OT’s playrooms. It also takes place when making things using the hands and imagination, including crafts, and when doing house hold tasks and everyday chores and activities, that involve movement and arise every day at home, e.g. cracking an egg to make scrambled eggs, mixing dough to make biscuits or a cake, washing and cutting vegetables, sweeping the floor, wiping the table, hanging up or folding clothes after washing, ...

What happens in a Waldon Lesson?

In a Waldon Lesson the adult helps the child to experience movements/activities that develop his general understanding of 'how things work', including his/her own body.

During this time we do NOT focus on social or verbal communication, which is why Waldon called it ‘The asocial lesson’. However, you will find that precisely because of this, there is a great deal of non-verbal emotional communication.

  • The facilitator is behind/beside the child to show, prompt and assist, initially hand-over-hand, - without praise, while making sure that the child always has an experience of being successful, - and that there is no need to feel anxious or that 'I can't do it' or 'I don't understand'.
  • Keeping things interesting and challenging at just the right level is an art, that comes with practice also for the facilitator.  
  • The child may resist at first, because he has never done it before. After a few times, he will begin to anticipate and understand ‘how it works’, and begin to look forward to these experiences.
  • AVOID talking (too much) as it distracts the child from figuring out for himself, how to understand.
  • Best progress: up to 1 hour every day.
  • The aim is to allow the child to feel himself in his body and to have new experiences about the world, which he may be able to use spontaneously at other times. , which means the adult wants to avoid any form of testing or teaching.
Does the Waldon approach help with Visuo-Spatial issues?

Visual problems are among the ‘hidden disabilities’ that often go undetected. In fact more than a quarter of children with learning or behavioural problems have underlying visual processing difficulties, even though they have been measured as having perfect 20/20 vision.

But their brains cannot make sense of what their eyes are telling them, e.g. to sort out the difference between foreground and background, forms, sizes, distance, speed, position in space. These issues are also addressed by the movement activities of the Waldon approach.


The EYES do the LOOKING. But it is the BRAIN that does the SEEING.

What is 'Functional Reading'?

‘Functional Reading’ is a playful developmental approach of sorting and coding activities to help children to learn to read without requiring speech or language comprehension through association, matching and coding.

Depending on the child’s developmental levels it supports the growth of the child’s general understanding and communication through graded activities of pairing, sorting, matching, sequencing and coding. It is an advanced form of Geoffrey Waldon’s ‘Learning-how-to-learn’ approach, and can also help with ‘reading disabilities’ and dyslexia.

What is crossing the midline and why is it so important?

Crossing the midline, which relies on good bilateral coordination, means using part of one side of the body in the space of the other part. It is essential for the child to be fully aware of his body space and know where everything is in relation to himself, so he can look and search for something he needs or wants. Some examples of crossing the midline include sitting cross-legged on the floor or drawing a horizontal line from one side of the paper to the other without switching the pencil to the other hand.

Why is bilateral coordination and crossing midline important? Having efficient bilateral coordination enables both feet or both hands to work together.  This allows you to play and work with fluid body movements. Bilateral coordination and crossing the body’s midline also support a child’s development of fine motor skills, ability to use tools, and ability to visually track a moving object.

What did Geoffrey Waldon mean by 'Understanding is Understanding'

Geoffrey Waldon described 2 complementary kinds of understanding:

‘General Understanding’ is the universal understanding of how the world and how our bodies work, which is basic to all human beings and similar in all countries, climates, and cultures throughout history. General Understanding cannot be taught, but is acquired internally by the child as he plays and explores his environment. It is the world of the child in the first 1-2 years before there are rules or ‘right and wrong’, and it lays the foundations for language development and imaginative play.

‘Cultural Understanding’ comes later, is moulded by the specific external requirements of the family and their culture, and varies as much as all the different languages in the world. It differs according to country or region, social classes within the area, and every family style and history, including the gender of the child. It is meant to prepare the child to fit into the society in which he is growing up. It is taught to the child by the people around him, directing and supporting him to learn to ‘do it the right way’. To take his place in society a child needs to learn the particular cultural norms of that society. But these cannot develop without a solid foundation in ‘general understanding’.

Some useful links for more information on the Waldon Approach: