Learning to Be Fun Again – Easy Ways to Engage Preschoolers with Autism

Learning to Be Fun Again - Easy Ways to Engage Preschoolers with AutismThe first thing I learned as a preschool teacher to children aged three to six who are on the spectrum is how to be “fun.” This seems like it would be common sense to any teacher or parent, but it is incredibly difficult to do especially when wheels, numbers, and letters on the circle time carpet are more interesting to the child. Being “fun” is unquestionably the MOST important part of my job teaching preschool at the Maier Centre with Children’s Autism Services of Edmonton.

We know that engagement and interaction are important skills for young children with autism.  Active engagement and shared attention can help build communication skills.  The more children with autism are engaged with other people, the more they will build important social communication skills.

Spending hours every morning and afternoon trying to earn the attention of my young students has taught me a few things about making myself interesting. You don’t need expensive games, iPad apps, or top-of-the-line toys to engage children with autism.  In fact, those can have the opposite effect.

The most successful strategies to engage students have been free and simple to do at home or in a classroom. Here are a few ideas for you to try today:

Revert back to your childhood: Working with this specific group of children has given me the permission and privilege to leave adulthood for a few hours each day and just play.  Many parents approach me and comment that it is not as easy for them to do this at home because they are just “not fun.”  My advice for them is that everyone can be fun!  In order for young children with autism to build positive associations, it is our job as teachers and parents to leave our egos at the door and get down, dirty, and fun. Pick something that your child or student likes and figure out a way to make it more enjoyable in ways that they cannot do on their own. For example, we have lots of students who love spinning and watching things spin, so in the gym, we often channel our inner child and hula-hoop with them.  Not only is it great exercise for us, the kids absolutely love it.  Once we stop and leave the hoops on the ground, even the least engaged student will pull our hands to it or bring it to us, indicating that they want us to do it again. Mission accomplished.

Incorporate sensory aspects: Sensory play helps keep children engaged.  Bins with rice and sand are great sensory ideas but they are rather limited to sitting at a table. There are limitless creative ways to incorporate sensory elements in almost every part of your day. Whether it is circle time, the toileting routine, or going to a restaurant for dinner, bringing props that speak to the five senses will increase your chances of capturing the attention of your children. Some of our classroom favorites are using a spray bottle as rain during Itsy Bitty Spider or waving a flat piece of cardboard to play “ready, set, wind.” Another big hit, especially with the boys, is using whoopee cushions to motivate students to sit at circle with some humor. When in the community, try using finger squishes while singing “This Little Piggy,” deep pressure hand squishes along with Pat-a-Cake, or the Bumpy Road lap game.

Adjust how you think about games: Growing up, we are taught that in order to play traditional games, we need to learn and follow a specific set of rules. This is true if you are intending to help your child learn how to play certain games properly, but is a minor concern if your goal is to engage your child in an activity that they find enjoyable. My tip to you is to let them show you what the game is and how to play it. Perhaps when playing Connect 4, your child is only interested in the red and black coin pieces. Rather than asking yourself “why won’t they play this the right way?” why not join in with them doing what they are already doing by stacking or rolling the coin pieces? When you join in their play rather than trying to show them how to play the “right way,” you stand a better chance of having a positive interaction and the child is more likely to initiate play with you again in the future.

In the end, the goal is to play with children, keep them engaged and interested…and have fun! Begin by giving yourself permission to get in touch with your inner child again. It’s crucial to get down and dirty and make ourselves fun in order to gain the attention of the children we adore so much.

This article was featured in Issue 49 – Understanding the People We Love

Kelly Pilkie

Kelly Pilkie

Kelly Pilkie was born and raised in Alberta.  She took a special interest in working with children with special needs, specifically those with autism after taking a position as an In-Home Support worker while earning a BA at Concordia University of Edmonton.  Kelly later received her B.Ed Degree from the Concordia After Degree program and went on to teach special needs class at Onoway Elementary for students in grades 3-7. For the past two years, she has worked at Children's Autism Services of Edmonton as a preschool teacher for students with severe delays, helping prepare them for the transition to typical preschool and kindergarten programs in the community. Kelly says she has the best job because she gets to be a kid again and be silly with kids while watching them learn new skills and grow into independent-minded children. Helping families learn strategies to connect and develop confidence supporting their children has encouraged her to go back to school and she will be starting her Masters in Counseling Psychology.