This post is about how to encourage imagination skills in special needs kids. Most kids develop imagination skills naturally, and patience is the ideal route. But a number of delays hinder the appearance of imagination skills, so if your child is around 3 with no significant pretending ability, it is worthwhile to try teaching imagination formally. The hope is that this formal instruction, while rote, will provide the intermediary steps necessary to trigger the revelation in your special needs child so they can pretend on their own.
There are several levels of imaginative ability. The first level starts with basic abilities to make-believe. Some of the first things a toddler pretends are:
- talking on a phone
- racing a car or choo-choo train
- comforting or communicating with a stuffed animal
- drinking or eating
There are obviously all kinds of other things a toddler may pretend, but these things are what I would start with, if I were doing it all over again. Turn everything into a phone… make one out of legos, use your fingers, get a toy phone or let your child use your cell phone (a privilege most preschoolers love!). Get them to realize they can “talk” on it even if they aren’t talking yet for real. Once they start babbling in a phone, rejoice! They have crossed over from realism to imagination! Even if it is just “hi” and “bye bye”, that suffices for a developmental checklist.
Do the same with toy cars or trains. Fire engines and Ambulances with sirens, or planes that whoosh over head are fine too. Get loud, get obnoxious, exaggerate, and repeat. Most little toddlers can learn to imitate this very quickly even if they have significant cognitive or verbal delays. It is a great step for possibly autistic kids too because they stop looking AT the car and start making it do something. This is an excellent goal for autism spectrum preschoolers. Just get them to swipe a Matchbox car back and forth and VROOM on the carpet, and you’ve made a leap. Work on diverse transportation vehicles and noises once you see them offering the VROOM VROOM on their own. Take the car and encourage them to run it around the room on the wall or over the sofas… lots of boys love the bumps on furniture or the “forbidden” places you don’t want them to run a car. But take advantage of this with a delayed child because it will trigger interest. Just make sure they don’t get distracted with the sensory qualities of the car or props. You want them to focus on the skill of pretending to “drive” and make noise. “BEEP BEEEEP” when something is in the way, etc.
The same goes for stuffed animals or pretend food. My girl picked up the animal thing quickly but my boys weren’t really interested. The developmental tester would always ask if they could feed a bear or put a blanket on a dolly, and my boys in general could not until they were older. But they could do the pretend food, so go with that if necessary. For animals, first just get them to hug or pat them, “awww bear.” That sort of thing. Then give your child a cracker and say, “Does your bear want one too?” and try to feed it to the bear making the “MMM MMM” noises. Pretend to feed or give the animal a drink often and they will get it. Then you can extend to more elaborate rituals including putting to sleep, etc. Skip the stuffed animal if your child doesn’t understand modeling or empathy yet. Just get them to pretend eat or drink with you. Use plastic food, playdoh, legos, or real (empty) utensils… whatever. But use exaggeration and repetition until your child can imitate and make believe with the food themselves. “MMM MMM, I LOOOOVE hot dogs!” as you pretend to munch the plastic. “And orange juice? My favorite!” as you slurp the empty cup. Let them just watch you if necessary—sometimes that is the first skill with a disengaged child. But once your child reaches out to imitate or acquiesces with your prompting, he or she has taken the first step.
Many toddlers and preschoolers can master the first imaginative skills listed above but get stuck on the secondary level of make-believe. They may be able to mimic simple noises but can’t go beyond or elaborate. My first child who had auditory processing problems was stuck at the basic level for maybe two years. I would give him crayons and he couldn’t draw more than scribbles or smiley faces. He didn’t seem to be realizing he could do other things, even when I modeled them… didn’t ask me to draw anything. I would give him playdoh and he wouldn’t make anything except a rubber “snake” over and over, or squishy “carrots” through the squasher. I would give him farm animals and he would just move them around. He couldn’t play with action figures at all, or make different track patterns with his train tracks. When his scripts did get more elaborate, they were always what we had done before in a teaching session and rarely changed. He seemed unable to really have fun, think about new things, or make things up.
To this day he still isn’t really imaginative, so I’m not sure how much was just his analytical personality! But we worked hard for almost two years to get his imagination working for him… he just seemed so bored. One day when he was four, I heard him talking to himself, “Tell the animals what to do… what to do… what do the animals do…” as if he were articulating the mantra in his head which his preschool teacher had been using. I knew his breakthrough was coming, but it took six months for him to actually be able to tell his animals what to do!
The main thing which helped here was play scripts. Play scripts are pictures which show a steps in a play sequence which the child can visually follow. One of my son’s early play scripts in preschool was with a toy barn and horse. The first picture (laminated, on a large key ring) was the horse outside the barn. The second picture was opening the barn. The third picture was the horse going in the barn. The fourth picture was the horse eating some hay in the barn. The fifth picture was the horse exiting the barn. The last picture was the barn closing. The teacher had my son run this play script several times until he could do it pretty rotely. Then she changed the script by taking out a card and replacing it with a new one (the horse taking a nap in the barn). This type of changing the script around, adding new things or taking them out, or mixing up the order helped familiarize my child with the barn and horse until he was interested enough in trying to play with them without the cards… maybe he would run the script on his own during freetime but without the cards. Then he would remember some of the new cards in the script and start changing things so it appeared as if he were using his imagination or doing some novel thinking. This repetition was actually an important part of the imagination process because a delayed child needs to be super familiar with things before they feel interested or invested in changing them. A script makes the child less intimidated; it shows them exactly what to do. Also a delayed child needs to repeat something many times before they are able to leave the script behind… more than the average learner.
Another thing which helped was getting action figures from Bob the Builder and a number of Bob videos to watch. Then we’d start acting out the movie scenes together. Eventually, after doing this for awhile, he was able to start changing things in the scene… just one little thing at a time, but one day the revelation came and he was pretending his own thing with them. Hallelujah!!! It was worth the money. From that point on, he sometimes went back to the scripts but could use them as a jumping off point all on his own and he never retreated back to boring land.
Other imagination tutorials I remember doing with my son in his preverbal days were:
- pretending you’re a helicopter (spinning)
- pretending you’re different animals with your body (dog, frog, snake, etc)
- putting on Daddy’s shoes and pretending you’re Daddy
- thinking of as many ways as possible to use a prop (like a bucket)
- making a card for Grandma (let your child decide what to put on it)
- making an impression of a favorite cartoon character, especially with your voice
- pretending all the cars are in a race—who will win?
- pretend camping (using a real tent and sleeping bag are extra fun!)