Toy Play

What is Toy Play?

Toy play is perhaps a type of play people are most familiar with. We associate them with birthdays, Christmas and Santa and how underneath all that wrapping paper is a much coveted toy. 








Image sources (left to right): IKEA, Walmart, Ali Express


Toys are versatile and can include:

  • teddy bears, 
  • cooking sets
  • train tracks and cars, and
  • blocks and puzzles

to name a few!

Why is Toy Play important?

  1. Teach problem-solving skills
    Some toys teach children to problem-solve, like figuring out which pieces go where, when building a jigsaw puzzle.
  2. Build fine motor skills
    Some toys require manipulation of very small parts and objects, like putting a shoe on a Barbie doll. This is great for building fine motor skills.
  3. Build independence in play
    Toy play prepares children for playing by themselves, without needing someone to attend to them at all times.

When can Toy Play be taught?

Toy play can begin as early as one month old, as long as the toys are safe and appropriate to the child’s age.

An age recommendation that a toy is not suitable for children up to 3 years old.


Toys for babies and children typically come with age recommendations. This is not just because certain toys are unsafe for younger children, but toys for that age may be designed to develop skills appropriate to that age.


A child with autism who has received a professional assessment may have a chronological age that does not match up with their developmental age. For example, a child may be 5 years old but have the developmental age of a 2-year-old. Hence, a toy designed for a 5 year old may not be suitable to their current skill set. Not only can the toy be too complex for them, it can also contain parts that are unsafe for their level of understanding. For example, putting small objects in their mouth or nose the way a 1- or 2-year-old might. 


Keep this in mind when going through the list of recommended toys below by recommended developmental age.

Recommended Toys by Developmental Age

From Birth to First Year

For a young infant from birth and within their first year, this is the age they are discovering what they can do with their body. 

Image Source: Verywell Family

Toys they can reach for, listen to and look at are great options, such as rattles, soft books or musical rotating cradle toys.











Image Source (left to right): Fisher-Price, Melissa & Doug

Once they begin to crawl and move around, babies also start to understand their name, common words and find hidden objects. They can start to explore plastic balls, puppets, nesting toys, soft blocks and push-pull toys.











Image Source (left to right): Lazada, Melissa & Doug

By 1 year old, good luck keeping up with them! They’re starting to walk and suddenly the world of possibilities around them are even greater. Board books, child-safe crayons and markers and knob puzzles are just a few ideas.


2-year-olds only get more active as they start to get more physical. 







Image Source (left to right): Loveevery, Waterstones


They are now able to play with more complex toys, like wooden puzzles, pretend building sets, finger-painting and picture books.

Three- to six-year-olds

Between 3 to 6 years old, language and social skills have developed enough for children to do more complex imaginary-style plays with their toys as well as play with other children. 


Image Source (left to right): Premium Joy, Family Education


They can now do jigsaw puzzles with more than 20 pieces, create cities and buildings out of blocks, use a wider variety of arts and crafts tools like child scissors and chalk, and of course, look at picture books with more words and detailed pictures.

Health and Safety Guidelines for Toys

It is important for parents to ensure any toys given to their children are well-made, any paint is non-toxic and lead-free and to avoid toys with small parts for children under 3.

Can children with autism learn to play with toys?

Buying the right toys for a child is only the first step. It is important not to assume a child with autism automatically knows how to play with a toy just because it is in front of them. If they find imitation challenging, they may also not be able to learn by just watching someone else play with it.


In fact, it is more common for children with autism to either not be playing with the toys they are given or playing with it inappropriately. For example, throwing a hard toy car into the air to hear it bang against something.


The child may still need to be taught how to play with the toy, applying the same three Key Strategies of ABA: Break Skills Down, Practice and Reinforcement. 


Example #1: Ball Play

Image Source:


There are many ways to play with a ball. One can throw it, kick it, roll it, use it in football, basketball and station games. 


A child with autism who does not know how to play in these many ways can be taught how to, one by one.


Start with actions that are easiest for them to do, like roll the ball, throw it, and then only kick it. Additional challenges like rolling, throwing or kicking the ball into a box can be added later on. Then, simple games can be taught like football with a child-sized football net or basketball net. 


Example #2: Shape sorter









Image Source: Kids Love This Stuff, Melissa & Doug


Shape sorters, just like jigsaw puzzles, come in a variety of levels and complexities. There are shape sorters with holes on only one side, and shape sorters with holes on every side. 


Start with the simplest shape sorter, and start with a single shape. The other shape holes might even have to be temporarily blocked to help the child focus on the correct hole at first. Then build up the skill, one shape at a time.


More open-ended toys like LEGO and blocks can also be broken down into steps. While there are many different things that can be built with LEGO, it can be demanding to expect a child with autism to come up with these ideas themselves. LEGO can be broken down by creating pictures of block combinations the child can copy and create, starting with pictures with the least blocks.








Image Source (Left to right): Schneider Electric Blog, Frugal Fun for Boys


There are even children’s blocks out there that come with page-by-page manuals of what they can build with the blocks they have.


Whichever toy is broken down, be sure to practice each step enough times for a child to confidently do it without prompting from the adult. And of course, remember to reinforce them! Don’t assume that because we are teaching toy play that should be mean it should be reinforcing in itself for them.

Create Toy Stations at Home











Image Source (Left to right): Project Nursery, eieihome


Children are also more likely to play toys when they are organised into stations around the home. Some examples of toys stations include:

  • Arts and Crafts Corner
  • Book Corner
  • Trains and Cars Corner

A Structured Approach to Teaching Toy Play

Some children with autism are able to learn toy play through natural setting such as the play stations and play time with their parents. However, some children who have challenges with attention may require a more structured, systematic way to teaching toy play. Here are some tips for teaching in a structured manner:


  1. First, set your child up for success!
    When teaching, ensure the environment is as distraction free as possible. Some options include placing toys in toy boxes so that a child can see the boxes but not gain immediate access. 
  2. Select a toy they would be most interested in
    For example, children with a younger developmental age tend to find cause-and-effect toys more interesting. 
  3. Teach in a structured setting
    The table is a structured setting as it is usually free of distractions and allows the child to focus on one thing at a time.
  4. Have a good, strong reinforcement on standby
    Remember that the toy play itself may not be motivating in itself to the child.
  5. Start with a very short expectation
    Starting with short durations, sometimes as short as 1 piece in a puzzle or 5 seconds of play, followed by reinforcement, can help the child feel successful.

Your Turn

  1. If your child does not already play with a wide variety of toys, select one toy you would like them to learn.
  2. Examine the toy and break playing that toy down into steps.

Feel free to download our free Toy Play Ideas list here, which gives toy idea recommendations based on the child’s developmental age.