Why Does My Child Line Up Cars?
By Hallie Bulkin
Does your child line up cars, trucks, and other toys? I’m talking, each item, lined up, like they are sitting in traffic on a one lane road with no where to go! And have they been doing this for months? Do they do anything else with those toys aside from line them up and make a single sound for each toy?
I have had parents ask me, “is this normal?”
Well, to answer your question, yes and no. First of all, I always have to ask, in each individual situation, “what does normal really look like?” Without knowing, it would be hard to answer that question. That said, we often have a wide range of what is considered normal for a child that is going through the stages of development, so you have to look at your child’s actions as a whole and not a single action to determine if what they are doing is “normal” or not. Basically that means, what other age-appropriate skills do they have and which skills are they not yet demonstrating? For example, my little brother used to hold a cookie in one hand and line up his cars with the other hand. He is 100% typical (and is now a successful adult), so we do see this as an early stage of play in typically developing children.
So what is normal?
Well, in early stages of play you may see children line up toys and make a single sound for each of the toys. They are attempting to play but for now, lining up the toys is the extent of what they know in play (and maybe the firetruck or cop car sound they are making). Generally, you would want to see your child move into more elaborate types of play where they may have the cars talk to each other, or they put people or animals in the cars that talk to each other. They make the cars move out of the line and pretend that they are going places (e.g., to the grocery store or gas station and then they pretend to buy groceries or pump gas).
But is it normal for a child to line up cars for an hour or more as his/her only form of play?
Not really. I say this lightly because it always depends on the child and where they are at in their development. If they have been doing this for months and they do not engage in other toys or types of play, chances are they do not have the skill set needed to engage in those other toys and/or types of play. Have no fear, this can be taught!
Why do children line up toys and insist on them staying put in that line?
Well this could be for different reasons. One reason is that the child is lacking a skill set for play schema’s as briefly mentioned above, and/or trying to self-regulate. What do I mean by the later? Basically, if your child feels overwhelmed s/he may engage in repetitive types of play or rote play where they line up toys as a way to calm themselves or regulate their environment.
So what can you do to break this cycle?
I have many strategies but note that they will not work overnight for most kids. These strategies are meant to help overtime.
- Familiarize yourself with the stages of play, so you know what to expect of your child and what step to take next!
- If you want to break your child of lining up cars or other toys, push the toy over (out of line!) or turn it a different direction as compared to the other toys in the line. NOTE: your child MAY have a meltdown. If s/he does, you know you have to proceed slowly. If they don’t…keep pushing a bit more!
- Work on turn-taking so they have to focus on another person in play and break out of the pattern they have created by continuously lining up the toys/cars.
- Add in toys with faces. It makes a difference when you have a toy that you can talk to as compared to a toy with no face that you cannot easily communicate with!
- Give your child CHOICES! Ask them which of two toys they would like to play with in addition to the cars/toys they are lining up. Be clear that they are NOT going to lose the toy that they may feel most comfortable with, but that we are going to add in a new toy in addition to those cars/toys that are lined up. When you give the child choices, they feel in control, and it makes the overall experience much more enjoyable and successful for everyone!
- What happens when your child refuses to play with the toy they chose? This is where you push them a bit and hold them to it. Remind them that they can have their car/lined-up toy of choice, too; however, they must also play with the other toy they chose. Set a time (1 minute for each year of age, so a 2 year old has a 2 minute timer) and once that timer buzzes, they are welcome to put the new toy aside. The goal is compliance while still having your child feel a sense of control and comfort on their end.
- Some of our friends have very busy brains that never seem to “turn off” so lining up items may just be a coping method to help the child regulate him/herself in their busy environment. Give your child other strategies and language to use in these situations by modeling what you think they feel (or you can ask them based on your child’s age). Other strategies can be used to replace this one such as doing 10 jumping jacks or jumping on the trampoline 10 times. Occupational therapists generally have a range of tips on this topic so be sure to seek one out if you have questions (or feel free to ask below and I will do my best to answer!).
In summary, it is not the end of the world if your child is lining up cars or other objects in play. It just shows you that you have some work to do. Start modeling for them language in play with the objects. Focus on integrating toys with faces and be sure to break your child of their current patterns by creating new ones and modeling the language you would like your child to use in those situations. I have helped break this habit in children in the past, and I plan to do it again in the future!
Here’s to your child’s success in ditching that car/toy line-up for a more exciting play schema!