How Can I Get My Child To Play With Me?

The short answer: build joint attention.  Joint attention is when two people are looking at and paying attention to the same object or event.  Once this is established, it is easier to have fun-filled play experiences.  Joint attention is also one of the building blocks for learning.  However, it may not come naturally to you and your child.  Here are some ways to build this relationship-based attention with them.

  1. Find out what grabs your child’s attention. What makes her smile? What does he search for? What calms them?  Using activities, toys, books, etc. that your child already has an interest in is a good place to start to play and engage.
  2. Put yourself center stage.  Position yourself face to face and at eye level, close enough yet respecting your child’s personal space preferences.
  3. Control the environment.  It is a challenge to hold a child’s attention in a crowded space with a TV on.  Have just a few of your child’s favorite things out in the room.  Set aside 15 minutes when the focus is on your child and technology is out of sight and muted.
  4. Follow their lead.  Do what they are doing.  Once you have their attention for a while, change it up…but just a bit.  Imitate what she is doing so in turn she will imitate you.  Be helpful by handing him desired items.  Parcel out small offerings so they have to keep coming back for more.
  5. Vary it up.  Keep the play focus moving between objects/you and just you.  Sharing attention with a toy train track is different than sharing attention on the child and you.  Both are necessary.  

These are our go-to play items and ideas for building joint attention:

  • Bubbles       
  • Cars and trains
  • Animal figurines
  • Blocks and legos
  • Roughhousing-running, jumping, swinging
  • Action songs such as Itsy Bisty Spider and Wheels on the Bus
  • Chase and Hide-n-Seek

Play is a foundation for learning.  If your child does not show joint attention, developing other skills will likely be a challenge.  Developing joint attention in young children should be a priority.  


The Learning to Learn Program by Cari Ebert, MS CCC-SLP

The Early Start Denver Model by Sally Rogers, PhD & Geraldine Dawson PhD

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