Learn to Play, Play to Learn

toys w a big red switch

Cause and effect.  Action and reaction.  We need an understanding of this concept to know that we can have an impact on our environment.  Without cause and effect, it is really hard to learn to play.  As has been said, play is the work of childhood (Thank you, Mr. Rogers!), and play is all about language development!  These concepts are closely tied.  

In typical child development, one flows into the other, but for children with delays, early learning may not be so easy or intuitive.  With my own child, I had to teach the art of pretend play.  It took several months to get him to drink a ‘pretend’ glass of lemonade.  Working on pretend play supported his further language development and, likely, his use of language for social interactions (pragmatics).

But what of those children who are born with complex bodies?  It may feel as if they have no way to be an active participant in life.  We want to catch these children as early as possible and give them the possibility of play. They need a way to understand cause and effect, and to move beyond being passive observers of their world.  

Fortunately, we live in the age of switch adapted toys!  With a battery interrupter, a simple on/off toy is easy to adapt.  Add a switch and magic can happen!  A few years ago, I worked with a two year-old boy with anencephaly.  We sat him in his adapted highchair and set up a toy horse with a saucer switch.  His hand bumped the switch and the horse kicked and neighed.  It only took this little one six tries to get the idea that he was causing the toy to react.  I will never forget the smile of absolute joy on his face!

Image of switch-adapted horse toy          Image of Saucer Switch

The AT Lending library has a series of nine toy kits, including a variety of switches.  You don’t have to be a therapist.  Anyone can borrow as long as they are a resident of Pennsylvania.  Borrow a kit and start playing!  Your occupational therapist, or SLP, can give you some ideas as to what switches might work for your child. Click the image or the link below.

Image of AT Lending Library Logo

TechOWLpa and the AT Lending Library

(If you don’t live in the Keystone State, check out www.at3center.net to find your state’s AT Act program). 

Image of AT3Center logo

Of course, we live in the age of the iPad.  This, too, can be used to teach cause and effect.  There are many, many apps that target this skill, using sounds, lights and music.  

     Image of Bloom HD app for cause and effec Image of Heat Pad app

 Image of Aunt Maggie's Recipes app for cause and effec

Some of my favorites:

General Cause and Effect                                                           

  1.     I Love Fireworks
  2.     Sensory Light Box
  3.     Make It Pop (Tryangle Labs)
  4.     Peekaboo Barn
  5.     Random Touch
  6.     Talking Larry Free
  7.     Butterflies (iBlower) ‎
  8.     Fun Bubbles ‎
  9.     Finger Paint with Sounds (on list)
  10.   Heat Pad HD
  11.   Touch Trainer (Touch Autism)
  12.   Touch Switch (Goatella)
  13.   Bloom HD


But, what if a child can’t touch the screen of the iPad to activate the app?  It is possible to use a switch interface, such as the Hook+, to connect the iPad to a physical switch.  There are Bluetooth switch interfaces, such as the Blue2, or the Tecla Shield, as well  Interfaces can be used to connect the iPad with another switch.  These items are also available from the AT lending Library.  

Image of Blue2 switch interface     Image of Hook+ switch interface     Image of Tecla Shield switch interface

A great thing about some of these apps is that they use play to introduce switch skills.  You can move from simple cause and effect apps to ones that teach a child to control the timing of their switch hit, or to use two switches to scan and select. You can introduce the idea of scanning the screen to find the item you need to complete a task. These skills can later be used for academic access or augmentative communication.

Here is a list of some switch accessible apps for early learning.

Image of Fireworks app for cause and effec     Image of Fireworks Cause and Effect app

Image of flowers app for cause and effect

Cause and Effect Apps for Switch Use

  1.     Sensory Room (Inclusive Technologies) Free
  2.     Splat The Clown (Inclusive Technologies)
  3.     Sight and Sounds Flowers (Marblesoft)
  4.     Sight and Sounds Fireworks (Marblesoft)
  5.     Switch Kids (Marblesoft)


Check out the lending library and have fun playing!  Borrow toys, or an iPad with apps. You will reap your reward in smiles.  And please leave a comment to let us know about your favorite apps and switch-adapted toys!

Kathryn Helland

Kathryn is a certified speech-language pathologist and works with children and adults with complex communication needs. She has been with the TechOWL team since 2015 and is currently working on her doctorate. She would like to examine how to best support AAC users in higher education.

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