The Whole Child: What Parents Need to Know About Floortime

When our children were diagnosed with autism, we found out why they responded to the world in the ways they did. After the diagnosis, it seemed my husband and I asked ourselves two questions: What do we do now? And which program do we choose? Many sites on the internet did not paint a picture of hope that our children would ever fit in socially or emotionally. It was quite disturbing to read the negativity and being told “it is the end of a dream”. Well, it was only the beginning of our dreams for our children. Yes, the road to get there has changed a little, but there are amazing people to meet on the way.

Some behavioural psychologists seem to spread myths as the truth. By that I mean, the notion that there is only a small window of opportunity for autistic children and then that’s it. But let’s take a minute to think about that statement. Doesn’t that sound absurd that learning has a ‘window’ and only up to the magical age of five? This statement can only lead to parents to rush to choose a program or feelings of anxiety if there are wait lists, leaving parents feeling as if they are losing precious time. Preschool intervention is crucial, that is true. But how we teach the intervention is the real issue. That is why Floortime/DIR and child development pedagogy go hand in hand.

The book, A Mandate for Playful Learning in Preschool: Presenting the Evidence was written for the over 500+ educators who wanted but could not attend the PLAY=LEARNING Conference, held at Yale University in 2005. The book explains the importance of play to a child’s learning and social and emotional development. Scientists suggest that learning takes place “best when children are engaged and enjoying themselves” (Hirsh-Pasek, Golinkoff, Berk, Singer p.3). Playful learning promotes literacy, language, numeracy, problem solving and spatial concepts. Parents need to be informed about child development and how all children learn through play-based activities, especially those with autism spectrum disorder.

Empty Vessel vs. Whole Child

The book mentions two very different views of child development:

The first is the empty-vessel theory, which sees all children as blank slates to be filled with adult initiated activities. Children are thought to passively absorb information from their teacher that is compartmentalized into learning areas such as language and social skills. Habits or fascinations that would otherwise help motivate or facilitate learning are widely ignored. In this empty vessel approach, play is often used as breaks, as teaching is widely dominated by direct instruction of memorizing and repetitive practice.

The second is the whole active child theory, which sees learning through discovery and child initiated activities that are guided and supported by an adult. A child’s learning is not compartmentalized; rather a child’s understanding of emotional and cognitive information is taught in meaningful ways with the help of a supportive adult.

Why Choose Floortime Therapy?

Floortime therapy looks at the child using the whole active child approach to help promote guided play, to encourage social and emotional development. Floortime therapy promotes engagement rather than compliance, learning together instead of insisting on independence in learning tasks, and dynamic thinking instead of imitation, repetition and facts. Floortime therapy truly embodies the whole child approach, of having a supportive play partner to guide rather than “pouring in” knowledge through adult directed activities.

When asked why we chose Floortime, we went with our instincts and our wish for our children to learn and develop as any child would. No matter what degree on the spectrum they were children first and autistic second. To us, social and emotional well-being and how it would be delivered was more important than the lure of supports or studies stating ‘most effective’.

Our advice to parents of newly diagnosed children: research different therapies and choose how you want your child to learn. Parents need to rebuke the notions that there is this ‘golden window of opportunity,’ and that autistic children learn in one particular way. Also, it is important to understand that guided play and play are different, but every human being enjoys it and seeks it. Fun as therapy is not nonsense and they do go together, despite those that feel play is not a valid form of therapy and does not promote learning. The fact is, it does and allows a child to be a child first and living with autism second.



This article is a must read for any parent deciding between autism therapies:

Dr. Barry Prizant, Is Autism the Only Way (Spring 2009 issue of Autism Spectrum Quarterly)

Parents can also watch a video of Floortime by visiting:

PLAY Project, Journey to Engagement


Citation: Hirsh-Pasek, K., Golinkoff, R., Berk, L., Singer, D.G., (2009). A Mandate for Playful Learning in Preschool: Presenting the Evidence.