Floortime Therapy Boosts Physical, Intellectual Skills

Floortime builds emotional connections but can lead to other skills

Small boy with his mother using a digital tablet
Thanasis Zovoilis/DigitalVision/Getty

Can Floortime Therapy Build Intellectual and Physical Skills in Children with Autism?

Floortime is a type of child-led therapeutic play. It's part of a larger therapeutic approach called DIR (Developmental, Individual-Difference, Relationship-Based). Floortime and DIR are best-known as techniques for building a child's emotional reciprocity and engagement. But can Floortime and DIR be used to build specific intellectual and physical skills?

I interviewed Dr. Stanley Greenspan, one of the primary developers of this approach, for this article.

Dr. Stanley Greenspan on the Connection Between Emotions and Skill-Building

Lisa Jo Rudy: I understand that Floortime is wonderful for building emotional skills. Can it also build intellectual skills?

Dr. Greenspan: Yes, it actually builds intellectual skills too because remember, the building blocks of intelligence are communication and thinking. That is the essence of the Floortime approach. As we have shown, emotions, and these emotional interactions and this back-and-forth emotional signaling that goes on in Floortime, are actually the fundamental building block of human intelligence, not drilling on flashcards or learning specific letters or numbers. It really starts with your basic communication and thinking skills. As surprising as it may sound, cognition or intelligence comes from our emotional interactions.

Lisa Jo Rudy: That is very interesting. So, would you use Floortime as a technique for teaching a skill?

Dr. Greenspan: Absolutely. Give me an example of a skill.

Lisa Jo Rudy: Oh, brushing teeth.

Dr. Greenspan: Well, if you want to teach brushing teeth, you have to say whether the child just doesn’t want to do it and you want to, therefore, create incentives to make it fun, or does the child need some work in the fine motor skills – holding things and using their fingers.

So if they need fine motor work, we are going to do what we call “semi-structured problem solving Floortime” – figure out fun things to do that the child wants to do that uses his fine motor; uses those little fingers in all kinds of ways. It might be coloring, drawing, holding things, it might be brushing the teeth of the dollies. Then when the child has the skill, we can then provide incentives to brush his own teeth and be a big boy or girl just like mommy or daddy.

Lisa Jo Rudy: That is if they want to do that, of course.

Dr. Greenspan: If you get the child to want to do it by doing it with the dollies first, 90% of the ballgame is won.

Lisa Jo Rudy: I see what you are saying. So in other words, you could conceivably simply enforce the child to brush his teeth, but it’s not going to be an ongoing, usable skill.

Dr. Greenspan:With the Floortime process, you are actually getting past the sense that you don’t want to do this but you are going to make me. You get away from the struggle.

Play Leads to Learning

As children communicate, use their imaginations, and engage with ideas, they increase their desire -- and thus their ability -- to use their new skills in the larger world. It is the emotional element that turns a learned behavior into a real, usable skill.