My child doesn’t play. Or talk. – What toys should I get?

Does your child have lots of colourful plastic toys?  Does he play with them? We all know the child who played more with the box and the packaging than with the actual expensive toy that was inside.

Something to play with: Play materials and toys with a high play value

In fact, there is often not very much you can do with modern toys, because they have a fixed agenda: all a child can do with press-the-button-toys is to press the buttons and let the toy ‘do its thing’. There is no room to expand the toy’s repertoire. These toys don’t encourage the most important aspects that ‘good play materials’ develop and encourage:

  • active participation
  • creativity
  • imagination

Electronic or press the button toys don’t have a high play value, even though they are often expensive. But you can’t actually play with them. Every time you press a button, it makes the same noise or flashy light. Often for a long time, where there is nothing else the child could to, – which is boring. There’s nothing new or interesting. Nothing to explore or discover. Remember, in my previous post, I talked about the most important thing for a child is ‘what can I DO!?’

Play Materials with a high Play Value

Children don’t actually need many toys as long as they have sufficient access to a wide variety of play materials. What they need are play materials that can be used in many different ways, thus giving them endless and high play-value.

Good toys and play materials encourage the child to use their mind for problem-solving, creativity and imagination, and to develop their physical, social, interactive and symbolic skills.

Play Materials for the difficult-to engage child

Toys and play materials are like the words of a language that helps the child to explore and express himself and to show us what they are interested in.The child with autistic-like behaviours or autism needs a basic set of play materials that allow and encourage him to explore his body and the world around him, i.e. ‘What can I do with ‘the stuff’?’ and ‘What happens, when I do … this or that?’

Basic Set of Play-Materials:

You don’t actually need much in terms of toys and play materials in order to play meaningfully with your child. A few simple things are enough, – and usually even better than too many pre-formed toys that leave less to the imagination than a few recycled or cardboard boxes, which have infinite play-value. Here is a basic set of play materials:

  1. Large plastic tray (about the size of an A4 paper): for holding and storing materials, for water or messy activities. A small (new!) cat litter tray works well.
  2. Set of 6-10 small trays/containers of different sizes: for sorting, pairing, matching, symbolic play, e.g. small wooden bowl, card board box, match box, plastic tray from 6 peaches, …
  3. Beans, pasta shapes, rice, lentils, pebbles, beads, buttons, sand, water, … or other small ‘loose parts’ that can be transferred from one container to another, initially using just the hands, – later using tools like a spoon, ladle, shovel, tongs, tweezers, …
  4. Empty containers and bottles with tops: matching, push-on and screw tops, on-off, in-out, problem-solving
  5. Play-dough, plasticine, small tub of clay to roll, squeeze and shape using the hands. Give your child plenty of time to explore with his hands
  6. Tools for transferring, cutting or shaping, e.g. spoons, scoop, sponge (to transfer water!), funnel, cutters, vegetable peeler, small knife, baster, …
  7. Kitchen roll holder & curtain rings for putting on and taking off
  8. Muffin tin with 6-12 ‘holes’ that are irresistible for almost every young child to fill, e.g. with bricks, curtain rings, potatoes, oranges, handfuls of beans,
  9. Clothes pegs: different kinds and colours for clipping around a bowl, onto clothing, for fine motor skills, to connect boxes
  10. Wooden Bricks or Blocks, in plain colours and without any letters or numbers on them, are among the best toys a child can have, as there are endless possibilities for play. Wooden bricks are best, because you can do more with them than with any other toy. However, it is very important that they should be ‘just bricks’, i.e. not also try to ‘teach numbers and letters’, which will only serve to distract the child from using his own ideas and imagination. Just make sure you have enough bricks (about 100) and a solid container to store them in, like a box with a lid.
  11. Little people and animals: families of little people or animals allow a child to play out his experience. Playmobil people  are good, because they can stand up and move their arms and legs.
  12. Doll and teddies: to imitate child’s own everyday experience of sleeping, eating, dressing, …

Many of these things you will already have in your house. Most of them can be collected in your daily life or are easy to obtain.

All of these materials and activities are free, as you already have most of the ingredients at home. None of them are complicated or very messy. But what is even better, is that they are also what every young child is interested in and motivated to explore and engage. In over 30 years of working with children who are difficult to engage, aimless or autistic, I have NEVER met a child, who could not be interested and engaged to interact with the above materials and activities.

Please let me know, what you find, when you try it out. I would love to hear about your experiences and any new ideas that you have about materials and what to do with them. You can use the form on the right of this page.


A warm welcome from Sibylle Janert.

I look forward to discussing your concerns.

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