FLOOR TIME: Promoting Personal Interest and Attention

This is a companion blog to my previous one, “Floor Time: Be Your Child’s Own Personal Play Therapist!” (You’ll want to read that one first.)

So you’re ready to start giving your child daily play therapy? Terrific! You can make an important, life-changing difference for your child’s future. Put on your “Parent Therapist” hat and let’s begin.

The first goal in your floor time play therapy sessions is to promote personal interest and attention from your child. There are many reasons why this is an important goal. As a human being, your son or daughter needs to be able to relate to other people. Showing interest in what other people are doing is a first step on the path toward having meaningful relationships. Many children on the autism spectrum or with sensory integration disorder are extremely autonomous and tend to engage themselves in self-stimulatory behavior which does not invite others to participate. Without intervention, these children are unlikely to have close emotional bonds with friends or family, and will have difficulty interacting with others in society. You can make a tremendous difference in your child’s future by using floor time to accomplish this goal.

(Note: This goal may be too elementary for some children who already interact well. If so, you’ll be ready to start with the second, third, or fourth goals, in my next blogs.)

Getting Started

  1. Start your floor time play therapy session by setting aside 20 – 30 minutes of time where you can give your child your undivided attention. Do not answer the phone (that’s what voice mail is for) and don’t answer the door. Turn off the television. Put away your other worries and stress and focus only on this special time. Be calm and patient. Try to have two or more of these sessions per day.
  2. Let your child direct the activity. Have toy selections and other activities available, and let your child lead the way. Do not say, “Don’t you want to do some coloring today?” Instead, just watch what your chooses of his own free will. Does he roll crayons back and forth on the table? Does she stand in the middle of the room, turning a ball in her hands? Is he lining up objects, or twisting the curtains? Whatever she is doing, that’s where you’ll start. In the beginning, it really doesn’t matter what the activity is as long as the focus is on becoming more interactive. You want to harness your child’s natural interests. Your son or daughter is naturally going to do what is personally comforting or enjoyable. You want to become a part of that comfort and enjoyment.
  3. This first thing you’ll do, once your child “selects” the activity, is to do it along with her. I once watched a television portrayal of a mother who helped her son break free from his autistic tendencies. All he seemed to want to do was spin plates on the floor, and she was baffled. She decided to get on the floor and start spinning plates with him. Without realizing it, she was becoming a parent play therapist. Sit close beside your child and “parallel” his actions, somewhat. You can slightly vary the activity to draw his interest or gaze. But generally do what he’s doing.
  4. As your child tolerates your parallel participation, the next step is to gradually insert yourself into the activity. Ideally, your child should need to interact with you in order to continue what she is doing. Talk gently to your child. Create an obstacle, or situate yourself so that your child must cooperate to continue. You’ll need to do this creatively, and without force. Here are some suggestions:
  • If your child is rolling marbles, take the marbles and hand them to him one by one. Say “Let’s race our marbles! Ready, set, go!”
  • If she’s rubbing fabric, try giving her the corner of your shirt to rub. Will she rub your hair or your shoe laces?
  • If he’s lining up cars, help him make the line by adding new cars. Then get in the way of the “line.” If he protests, say, “Oh, I see.. I’m in the way. Okay, Mom needs to move her arm.” Later, put your foot in the way. “Whoops. Now Mom needs to move her foot.” Oh dear. Mom needs to move her face.” Smile and be playfully obstructive. Make it a game. In this way, he “needs” your cooperation to keep his car line going. Be careful not to cause too much frustration.
  • If she’s jumping up and down, join her. Start singing, “We’re two bunnies and we jump, jump, jump.”
  • If he’s playing with a ball, take it quickly and put it under a pillow on your lap. Before he can become upset, pull the ball out again. “There it is!” Give him back the ball, and after a while hide it again. “Where’d the ball go?” When he points, say, “You’re right!”
  • If your child enjoys making funny sounds, get a toy microphone. Copy his sounds into the mike after he makes them. Pass him the mike, and let him try. Pass the mike back and forth, echoing each other. Move toward meaningful words and phrases.
  • If she’s drawing, draw along side her and use a color she needs. Say, “Oh, did you need the blue?” Try coloring on the same paper together. Ask questions about what she’s drawing. Say, “I’ll draw a house for the dog, you draw a bone.”

Make your interactions “fun” and don’t be too challenging. Be patient. Depending on the level of your child’s disability or how avoidant he may be, it may take a while to see progress.

Is my child showing interest?

Look for signs of interest, like eye contact, pausing to watch you, sharing the object willingly, smiling, laughing, looking for you, etc. Try to have many floor time play sessions over several weeks or months, where interest, sharing, and cooperation is shown before moving to the next goal. You not only want to see emerging signs of personal attention, but you want to reinforce it over a period of time. Your child’s ability to cooperate and show interest should become a normal, enjoyable part of play.

My child already tolerates my participation and regularly shows attention and interest in me and what I’m doing. We’re beyond this goal.

Great! Then you’re ready to move on to the second goal: Promoting better communication skills, which you’ll read about in my next blog.

Kristyn Crow is the author of this blog. Visit her website by clicking here.

Floor Time is an intervention model developed by by Stanley I. Greenspan, M.D. and can be found in his wonderful book, The Child with Special Needs, by Stanley I. Greenspan, M.D., and Serena Wieder, Ph.D.