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  • Writer's pictureLaura Fowls, M.Ed., BCBA

Increasing a Child’s Independent Play: Implementing Toy Rotation

Ok you all! I know you have some ummm… extra time. Are you ready to get a handle on the toy situation at home? Better yet ready to not only remove the take over of toys BUT create an arrangement that promotes independence, creative play AND sustained attention?? Read on my friends!

A little background. As a child development specialist and board certified behavior analyst working in homes for the last 14 years, I have worked with many parents on arranging the environment to promote overall child development with a specific focus on cognitive, language and social skills.

Play, both independent and cooperative is the keystone to children’s development. When I would specifically be called into a home due to cognitive, language and/or social delays arranging the environment was step one, and implementing toy rotation and REDUCING the toys available at one time was nearly always the very first step and reliably produced a high amount of positive impact.

I am often in the home to serve a particular child showing delays in their development and implementing toy rotation is almost always something I help parents to initiate whenever possible.

We often see all the children in the home benefiting from this method in terms of their attention and play skills. The ability to engage in sustained play is the foundation for problem solving, reasoning, persistence, executive function skills and cooperative skills. These are critical skills that benefit all children!

We will walk through environmental arrangements this week, and later move onto how to arrange your daily routine to promote independent play, and finally how to problem solve if your child is still struggling with independent play. Reading the common questions below will get into the best way to display toys to encourage development of these skills.

The essence of the environmental arrangement is to dramatically reduce the amount of toys out at once. You then offer certain toys that promote sustained attention and creative play. Later on you will rotate your toys.

Making Environmental Arrangements COLLECT, CONDENSE and SELECT!

Step One: COLLECT. ALL the toys! Use a big laundry basket and get Every. Single. Little. Toy. You may have to do this one area, level, room, etc. of your house at a time. This is the only way to really see what you have and how many toys are really out. Get all the things.

Step Two: CONDENSE. Put it ALL away. I use big storage tubs that are clear and leave them in our basement storage area. Organization of the storage tubs is great, but not required. I can tell you ours go through phases but with clear tubs I can see what we have and pull items out as needed. Many parents use a garage or hall closet. If they are stored in a place where kids can see them frequently use colored bins to avoid the arguments about getting toys from the bins out.

Step Three: SELECT. You will want to put toys out in limited amounts and specifically target toys that increase independent play and and creative play.

You always want to start with three types of toys:

1. Building toys. Usually you want two kinds of building toys. This will be age specific. (e..g blocks, magna-tiles, soft blocks, Legos, wooden blocks, etc.)

2. Books. Age appropriate and an amount that your space can handle so the selection you have can be seen.

3. Pretend play materials. You could have two pretend play options out but one is often enough. (E.g. baby dolls, a kitchen set with food, doll house, farm, doctor kit, little people school set etc.)

Now move onto the other categories as needed

1. Art play. Rotate these materials as well. Try to have a few choices available and bring different materials out and put others away. (E.g. dot markers, crayons, feathers and glue, poms, colouring books)

2. Sensory play. One to two sensory exploration activities (e.g. sensory bin, play dough, clay, slime, water table). Often times with sensory play I do not leave this out at all times, I make it available during certain times of the day. More to come on that later in another post

3. Manipulative and close ended play. This is the play you need the least of. These are toys that TELL you how to play with them. Puzzles, shape sorters, matching boards. Have one to two out. Close ended play is brief and offers more memorization tasks and challenges our brains the least. I currently have two puzzles out. If your child prefers this kind of play that is ok, have a bit more out but make sure to have the other categories available as well.

4. Gross motor play. One thing at a time. (e.g. Indoor slide, indoor trampoline, balls for inside, a crash pillow). These are most helpful during winter time and for us PNW’ers I rotate these items out every few days. In the summer all gross motor play goes outside here!

5. Music Play. This includes individual instruments. Obviously for older kids you may have an actual instrument out at all times and for the littles this might be basket of shakers and other small instruments.

5. Other. I would say one or two of these out during any given time. I often have a big basket of cars, or maybe a small area of teething toys when we have a child who is mouthing. This could be the one light up toy or button toy. Currently we have a random toy guitar out that plays music and lights up.

*Board games are awesome but are a separate kind of play that is obviously less independent. Have them for available at certain times!

Common Questions

How often to rotate?

This depends on your kids, the time of year, how much you are home, etc. In the summer I go 8 weeks. In the winter 3. Pandemic status, might be weekly.

How do you store these?

What you want to lose is the big buckets of miscellaneous toys. No longer needed. Each bucket or shelf holds ONE thing. The most common method is an open shelf, and each section has one toy on it, not a bin full of random toys. Have the choices more visible and clear, not all mixed together. I have one bucket for legos. One for cars. One for pretend food. No random hold all buckets, or limit yourself to just ONE, just as you would a junk drawer.

How does this last?

Each time you rotate out it will be perfect and clean. Then by some mysterious way toys will sneak their way in and out, but. mostly in. When it gets cluttered and you see the junk bins expanding get your laundry basket and compete the collect and condense steps.

Do the kids like this?

Yes! Oh man they do but the PARENTS like it the most! The impact on development can be remarkable. The feeling of not staring at piles of toys that your kids NEVER play with is pretty great to.

Other questions! Feel free to ask in the comments!

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