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School Breaks!- Tips for Engaging Children in Play

Updated: Mar 29, 2023

Guest blog by Colette McNeil

Have you noticed that long days of at-home play during vacations are often accompanied by repeated episodes of squabbling, cranky complaining, destructive use of toys, and emotional outbursts? The following tips from my book Choice and Structure for Children with Autism: Second Edition can be supportive to all young children with and without disabilities.

Playing all day can be quite enjoyable for children and their parents when assistance to keep things engaging is provided. With just a little thought, parents can create a system of moderation to keep the kids interested and occupied with a variety of toys. Switching up the toys and moderating their usage throughout the day will help kids remain interested in their play. Further, by strategically offering plenty of structured choices, using multiple spaces around the home, changing up the energy level throughout the day, and maintaining timing that supports the child’s attention span, parents can help their child interact positively throughout long days at home.

Structured Choice

The act of simply offering a choice will engage the interest of a child enough to be able to focus on activities. Offer choices often throughout the day and within activities as needed.

  • Structured Choice limits an offer to 2-4 options.

  • Using Structured Choice assists focus and helps to set boundaries.

  • Choice can be offered for locations, toys, actions, activities, materials, daily living routines such as dressing, bathing, chores, and of course food and drinks.

  • Choices are offered for in the moment activities. This is not a reward, or bribe to do better. Structured Choices offered must be able to be honored immediately upon the child’s response.


Moderation is what keeps toys from becoming old and overplayed. Encouraging the use of different toys throughout the day keeps the mind freshly engaged.

  • Put away some toys to be brought out at a later time to keep them interesting.

  • Avoid repeating the same activity with the same materials, in the same space on the same day.

Now, this is not to say that your child can’t repeat the general activity at different times of the day, or use the same spaces for similar activities. Just mix it up somehow. For instance, if in the morning your daughter colors at the dining table, with markers, in the princess coloring book, then maybe in the evening she could color at the coffee table with crayons in the baby animal coloring book.


  • Try to move spaces regularly without repeating the same area for three rotations.

  • Identify spaces that are appropriate for different energy needs.


  • Acknowledge your children’s changing energy levels and plan activities with them in mind.

  • Kids need lots of movement and asking them to stay with quiet play for too long may ignite their whining and cranky expressions. Offer activities that allow for movement interspersed with quiet and focused toys.


Awareness of the time factors for each activity will aide effective planning.

  • Knowing how long it takes a child to finish a puzzle, and whether or not this child can leave an unfinished puzzle without expressing anxiety, will help parents decide whether or not to add puzzles as a play choice before dinner time.

  • If it only takes your child 5 minutes to get tired of coloring then plan a different activity such as electronic games for when you need to get something done.

  • Address boredom early. This strategy will help to avoid arguments and corrections. Notice when driving cars becomes demolition derby. Or coloring on paper becomes scribbling on the table. This indicates the children have become bored with the activity and inappropriate or destructive play will soon follow. Intervene early by offering a choice to change things up!

Keeping kids interested and engaged with a variety of toys and activities throughout the day will reduce those disgruntled episodes that often accompany long days at home. It may seem easier to just let the kids do what ever they want all day. And, if the kids are happily playing, well then don’t fix what’s not broken! But, if parents find themselves refereeing and correcting often, they may wish to add a little choice and structure to the family’s day for a more peaceful and enjoyable Thanksgiving Vacation.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Colette McNeil

Colette McNeil is the author of the award-winning books Choice and Structure for Children with Autism: Getting through the Long Days of Quarantine, and Understanding the Challenge of “No,” for Children with Autism: Improving Communication, Increasing Positivity, Enhancing Relationships.

Ms. McNeil has over 30 years of experience working with children with autism in a wide range of educational, recreational, and care giving settings. She holds a master of arts degree in Psychology and follows positive psychology inspirations. Ms. McNeil aspires to development confidence in children with autism through expanding the perspectives of their parents, families, teachers and caregivers.

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