While most of the articles found on the Internet on the topic of lining up toys focus on it as a sign of a possible autism diagnosis this article is primarily about ways to join with and play with children who enjoy lining up objects whether the children are on the autism spectrum, have sensory processing differences, have other developmental differences, or are typically developing. The ideas discussed incorporate principles and strategies of the DIRFloortime model. Some of the ideas will be applicable to children who engage in other types of play that tend to be rigid.
Why children line up toys
Lining up toys represents a very normal type of play in young children as they take in the complexities of their world and seek to process, sort, and organize objects and materials in their environments. Sorting, classification, and understanding patterns are important mathematical skills and this type of early play can provide an important developmental foundation for all young children.
Related to the visual system, lining up toys can also be regulating and organizing for children with autism and sensory processing difficulties by offering a type of sensory anchor. This type of play helps the child gain a sense of control and organization when confronted with more sensory input than they are able to take in. The predictability can be very soothing and calming thus the play serves a purpose for the child.
For the perspective of an autistic adult on why he enjoyed lining up his toys as a child: https://themighty.com/2016/11/autism-letter-to-parents-whose-children-line-up-their-toys/
Some children are resistant to a partner joining this type of play. If this is the case I suggest starting with something very simple like simply handing the child an object. If the child accepts this type of interaction, try varying what you’re doing a bit. If what you try is not initially accepted, as long as the child is not agitated or upset, give it a try a few more times. Sometimes after a few tries you may begin to see a bit of smile forming at the corners of the child's mouth. Whatever you do, remember to do it playfully! The list below offers suggestions for joining with your child in this type of play.
Suggestions for joining the play
- Assist the child by handing them objects to add to the line-up.
- After you’ve handed the child objects several times, playfully hand her an object that’s different from the other objects in the line-up and if they notice and show consternation, playfully and emphatically apologize (“Oh no! I thought that was a block!).
- Ask the child to show you where to place an object to add to the line-up.
- Make your own line-up that is parallel to the child’s line-up.
- Count the objects in the child’s line-up (pointing to each object as you count).
- Change the spatial configuration as you add to the line-up (e.g., add a vertical line, stack objects, etc.).
- If the child’s lining up toy cars, pretend the lineup is a parking lot and add a car by driving it to the lot and parking it (make car sounds as you drive) or ask where you should park it. For some children lining up play can be a launching pad to pretend play.
- If the child is lining up play food items or eating utensils, pretend to eat a food item the child is lining up or eat from an eating utensil in the line-up (“yum yum that looks delicious!”).
- Place items that can be added to the line-up in a toy truck, shopping cart, or wagon and deliver them to the child (this may change or expand play into gathering objects to place in the truck or cart or pretending to load, drive the truck and make deliveries).
- Join the child in looking around the room for additional objects within a category to gather to add to the line-up.