Strategies and tips to increase engagement in the play

As an adult, it’s very difficult to keep up with all the daily tasks… finishing all the household chores, finishing that presentation at work, calling your friend, cooking dinner for the family and thousands of other tasks that make you wish for a 48 hour day! In addition to time issues, sometimes we are not motivated to do something and put it off hoping that one day it will magically get done!

Children are no different from us. They may feel the same way about the multitude of tasks they are asked to do every day at school, at home and in the community. They may find a task too difficult or not understand why they are being asked to do something. They may not like what they are being asked to do or they may simply be overwhelmed by the tons of things they have to do. Sometimes they are not in the mood and other times they just want to be left alone.

Being motivated is the essential first step to action! If we think about our lives, we use many tricks and strategies to get things done. We go to work because we get paid (and that’s a big motivator), we plan our activities intelligently, we set aside pleasures and rewards for ourselves after accomplishing something (a nice dinner out after a crazy week or a vacation after a busy time), we keep a routine (going to the gym the same days of the week). Sometimes we realize that we can’t do it all and we use compensatory strategies: for example, we may ask for help from a housekeeper or we may simply take a side road when we don’t want to cook.

Children have busy lives and receive many requests every day from parents, caregivers, siblings, teachers, therapists and many others. However, children do not have the same coping mechanisms as adults to handle all of these demands. If we then look at children with special needs, the situation becomes more complicated with many new factors that impact motivation to do something. Communication difficulties, delays in fine and gross motor skills, different sensory processing mechanisms, attention and concentration problems, medication use, and poor sleep patterns are just a few examples.

Here are some strategies and tips for increasing motivation and engagement in play and daily living activities for children with special needs.


Using a structured routine will help your child understand what it is happening during the day. Having breakfast at the same time, bath time at the end of the day, play time before mealtime will help your child understand what is expected, and it will likely improve his engagement in the activities presented.

In order to support this, visual timetables and visual schedules are very helpful.

In addition, a NOW and NEXT board is useful for children who may find a visual timetable too difficult or complicated to understand.

An important behavioural strategy to increase motivation is to schedule activities with first a non-preferred activity followed a highly preferred activity. For example, if your child dislikes brushing teeth, make sure to schedule brushing teeth before play time. You can do this by using the visuals above in addition to the following language: “First brush teeth, then we play hide and seek!”


Be careful when scheduling an activity for your child. Firstly, you need to have time and not be in rush. This will create a calm and relaxed environment for you and your child. Avoid rushing your child throughout activities and make sure he has plenty of time to complete what he is requested to do.

Do not expect your child to stay on a task for a long time. Instead prepare short activities and use movement breaks to support re-focusing (see point 6 below). For activities that require lots of effort for your child, such as homework, make sure your child is in the right mood. For example, ensure that your child is not hungry, or not tired after a very long day.

For some children it is hard to understand the concept of time and duration. In this case, using a visual timer will help to understand how long is left to complete the activity.

As for some children is difficult to understand when an activity ends, for other children it may be tricky understand when an activity begins. In this case, it can be useful to give them a “warning” before the activity starts. For example, before completing teeth brushing which they dislike, you tell them “in 5 minutes we are going to brush your teeth”. This allows the child to prepare for the upcoming task.


Setting up the environment will support engagement and attention. A good idea is to use different settings with consistency: for example, use the kitchen table for mealtime, the play area for play time, the table and chair for tabletop activities etc… This will help your child to understand what he is expected to do in that environment.

For more support in using behavioral strategies and encourage engagement of your child, please speak with one of our Occupational Therapists in Neurologist in Dubai. We would be very happy to help!

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