Monday, April 19, 2010

Discovery Toy Champion--Marble Works

One of my favorite toys is Marble Works.  This toy is sold by Discovery Toys and although parents have purchased  similar toys made by other companies, they are often disappointed and report that other similar toys are less sturdy and well-designed.  The reason for the blog post, however, is not to endorse this company nor is it even to endorse this toy so much as to use this toy to explain some important things to consider about toys. The right toy matters but the way you play the game is even more important.

  1. Piece-by-piece.  Any toy that allows the adult play partner to hand out the parts, one part at a time, provides many opportunities to communicate--so long as the child really wants the parts.  I often explain to my young play partner that I am the Parts Person and that the he or she is the Builder and so the Builder has to get parts from the Parts Person.  If a child is not able to understand the explanation, I still use the strategy. This explanation works very well, though, for many children and it is one that I learned from Dr. Gutstein.  It is ok to exchange roles if a child wants to but if you do, then the child hands out parts and the adult builds--the child does not get to have both roles.  Dr. Gutstein did not encourage this role reversal in that workshop, by-the-way but for teaching communication skills, exchanging roles is very helpful.  In this case, almost every child is going to want to be the Builder.  The most important point, is that if you ever just hand over all the parts to the child to play with, no significant language learning or communication will occur. 
  2. Establish a game vocabulary.  This game lends itself to creating and using cool words both as names and as a description of what is going on as the marble races down and around and through all the parts of the toy.  All games seem to be more fun if there is a specific vocabulary and a vocabulary is needed if you are going to talk about what is going on.  I name the parts of  Marble Works with words like zigzag, wheel, whirly-bird, wiggle wiggle wiggle, jump, bump bump bump, funnel, connector, and foot--often teaching the words by showing the part and showing the child the physical properties of the part that inspired the name.  With specific parts named, the child can request the part he or she wants and I can provide a choice. E.g. Did you want connector or funnel?   We can also talk about how far marbles jumped or which marble won the race, or how upsetting it is when marbles get stuck.  This kind of language becomes rather like Marble Works Sports Talk and I use that manner of talking because it is exciting to talk about games in this dramatic way. You are also teaching a manner of using the words rather than just the words and this makes the vocabulary so much more fun to learn.
  3. Many possible communication goals.  This toy allows for many different and increasingly complex communication goals.  In the beginning, we might use the toy to teach the child how to share control of a toy with an adult.  We might be helping the parent of the child learn how to retain control of the materials while remaining fun and playful (rather than directive and authoritarian). We might be teaching this Sports Talk manner of speaking about games.  We might be learning to request or tell another person what to do or express disappointment. Years later, we might be working on creating a written plan for the project prior to starting it or, by taking pictures of several different projects after completed, the goal might be to learn to evaluate the relative subjective value of different ways of putting Marble Works together.  On a scale of 1 to 5 with 5 being the most cool of all, rate each of your last three Marble Works projects for how cool the project was. There are seemingly endless learning objectives with a toy like this.
  4. Flexibility and creativity. Any toy, like this one, that allows a great deal of flexibility and creativity is a good toy for a child with autism because there is a tendency for children with autism to want to find one way to do a thing and then repeat this one way over and over until the child gets bored and doesn't want to play with it anymore at all. By insisting on playing in a variety of different ways with the same materials, the adult can show a child that there are many different possible ways to do things and that finding new ways is fun. This one goal is worthy of many hours of play because when a child with ASD becomes more flexible and creative, life becomes far less anxious for that child. Toys with a single right way to play are not good toys for any child but they are really bad for a child with ASD who already tends to think like this and does not need to practice inflexibility in play.
  5. Sensory Reinforcement.  This toy provides a great sensory reward because for people of any age, watching marbles fall, twirl, roll and jump is a visual treat.  For most children with autism, it is beyond exciting!  The trick is for the adult play partner to realize that dropping marbles down is the primary motivation that keeps a child willing to take turns, learn new vocabulary, share control of materials, verbally make a building plan--and so on.  Just like any other thing that you use as a reward, the adult needs to be smart about how the reward is used.  Let the child drop the marble after he or she does something that you want the child to do again and not, for example, after the child whines or demands or breaks something.  This might seems obvious, but there is a tendency for parents to want to avoid a meltdown and so give the child what he or she wants at the first sign of emotional dis-regulation in order to avoid a full blown melt-down.  Instead, a parent needs to model for the child the socially appropriate skill that the child should use but does not know how to use in that moment.  For example, the child wants to drop a marble and is starting to throw pieces because he or she is not getting the marble fast enough.  At this point, show the child what to say.  E.g.  Mom, can I have a marble? or It is hard to wait for marbles! or I wish it was my turn, my brother takes too long! or even showing a child how to hold out a hand to request a marble. If you identify the fact that dropping marbles is the primary reward in this activity, you can be careful to teach what you want to teach with this reward. 
  6. Remember that rewards don't work forever  --although, honestly, dropping marbles is interesting for longer than most things.  Knowing that rewards don't continue to be rewarding forever, make sure you stretch out how often you provide this reward by just giving out a Test Marble from time to time at the beginning.  Gradually, suggest that perhaps it would be good to try two or three marbles if you sense that your child is losing interest.  You can also increase your child's interest in other ways--like showing him or her how to build the set in a new way.  At the very end, in the July 4th Fireworks strategy, give your child lots of marbles to send down in a short Grand Finale! Then quit while your child is still enjoying the game and pull it out at another time to play together. Meanwhile, try to teach your child to be rewarded by other aspects of Marble Works play. Help your child learn to enjoy sharing control (if this is what you are working on) by teaching the skill very gradually and without lecturing--the killer of all joy in play is a parent lecture. Mention aloud (for a child who would understand what you are saying) that it is so much fun to play together.  Later, talk about how much you want to play Marble Works again because it makes you happy to play together.  Do not hand over the toys at the end and let your child play alone because your child may actually like playing alone better than playing together!  Sell your child on the idea that cooperation is fun.  E.g.  Come help Mommy set the table. I will be the Parts Person and you will be the Table Setter.  We are good at doing things together!  or Help Daddy drop dirty clothes down the Laundry Chute--I will be the Part Man and you be the Clothes Dropper. We are a team!  Eventually, you want your child to cooperate because cooperation feels good not because it is fun to watch marbles fall down.  From the beginning you need to plan that the initial reward will not work forever.
  7. Example of Marble Works Play

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