There is no ‘right way’ to play with toys

Originally published on Respectfully Connected.

A few months ago, I was watching my son play with some of his toys. The things that he was playing with were part of a set designed to be used as a competitive game where whoever spills the most coins wins. This was not the way that he was using these items.

He was basically grouping the silver and gold pieces into two groups and then systematically rearranging them by mixing the gold and silver pieces. To the casual observer, this may have seemed a little repetitive, but I watched him as he rearranged them again back into their colour-coded groups and moved them around again. There seemed to be a system to this so, intrigued, I watched for a while trying to figure out what the pattern was. After some time had passed, and I was still no closer to figuring out what he was doing, I asked him to tell me. I’m glad that I did because I was told a wonderfully detailed story about how two slimes – a gold one and a silver one – were saying hello and giving each other hugs or shaking hands or interacting in one way or another. As the story progressed, my son showed me how this meant that they kept getting mixed together because slime is a semi-liquid so they will mix when they meet.

Sharing this story may seem a bit random, but there is a point to it. Too often, therapists and other professionals, when speaking to parents of autistic children, will ask questions such as “does he play with toys in the appropriate way?” or “have you noticed him playing with parts of toys rather than the whole toy?” I know this because it happened to me, and I know that it also happens to other parents because I often hear parents express concerns that their children aren’t playing with toys in the ‘right way’. Initially, I shared those concerns. I wondered if there were ways to encourage my son to play with his toys appropriately. I wondered whether this was something that I had somehow missed along the way, and something that I should have been doing better at in parenting.

Fortunately, for my own peace of mind, I have realised that there is no ‘right way’ to play with toys. Or, perhaps, there is a ‘right way’, but it might not the one intended by toy designers. If children are having fun playing with toys, then they’re doing it the ‘right way’ even if their ‘right way’ is not what the instructions on the box say. If we focus on teaching children to play with their toys only in the way that they were designed to be played with, we are potentially stifling their imagination, and we’re reducing their ability have fun exploring their world in their own way.

Was my son playing with his toys in the way that they were intended to be played with? No, he wasn’t. Was he playing with those toys in a way that was fun for him? Yes, he was, and that means that it was the right way for him.

This post has been translated into Russian. You can access the translation here.