Time to Play: Encouraging Play through Food Toys

For a long time we bought my son Benjamin every toy he so much as blinked at. It probably sounds like we were spoiling him, but really we were just desperate to get him to do what most kids do naturally: Play. See, because of his autism, playing is something that does not come naturally to him, and something that since his diagnosis seven years ago at the age of 2 we’ve been trying very hard to teach him.

Although he will participate in games and activities during therapy sessions, the trick is getting him to actually enjoy it. In other words, we want play to feel like play—not work.

While the toys in our stocked playroom are not his thing, food is. He’s always liked eating it, but lately he’s begun to enjoy preparing it too. This budding interest led us to try something new: Food toys. And miraculously, so far it’s working. Here, are a few of his favorite new activities.

Big food-based play sets. Our home therapist made videos of herself grilling hot dogs using a Little Tikes grill, and Benjamin’s job is to watch and imitate. The idea is that since he’s a visual learner, he’ll pick things up more easily if he can actually see what he’s supposed to do first. I was sure he’d think the activity was corny, but nope—turns out the video was his version of Seinfeld. Couldn’t stop laughing. Not so hard, though, that he didn’t pretend to make a yummy little plastic meal for himself.

Small food-based play sets. These can be slightly tricky to manipulate, especially since his fine motor skills need work, but Benjamin loves “cooking” up a chicken dinner and serving it to the teeny grandmother and baby that came with his Playmobil kitchen.

Toys that make real food. Pretend play is okay, but there’s nothing more motivating to Benjamin than a tangible finished product. First we tried a Dippin’ Dots Maker, but were disappointed with the slushy results that don’t at all resemble the store-bought freeze-dried treats. The Easy-Bake Oven was more successful. I’m guessing he’d probably choose a regular cupcake over the fingertip sized ones that come out of his purple oven, but the overall experience is a lot of fun (and a lot less messy than full-size baking).

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