Engage Your Child in Play with O.W.L Strategy

Parents facing difficulties with engaging their child in play with others may follow the OWL strategy. OWL stands for Observe, Wait and Listen, and it is a helpful guideline when [...]

Key takeaways:

  • It will be harder for children with difficulty understanding language and communicating their wants to play with others and therefore the OWL strategy can help those points to be worked on
  • Support and understanding from parents is especially important as every child learns at their own pace

Parents facing difficulties with engaging their child in play with others may follow the OWL strategy. OWL stands for Observe, Wait and Listen, and it is a helpful guideline when working with children. They may take several tries to be comfortable with an observer, but parents are encouraged to follow the child’s interest and proceed at their pace.

“My son, Andrew, is almost 4 years old. At preschool, while his classmates are playing happily with one another, Andrew would stay in a corner on his own. He ignores others when they try to talk to him. It’s the same at home! He would walk away the moment I try to play with him. How do I get him to play with me?” Mrs Tan asked.

Are you, as a parent, facing similar challenges with your children? SPD’s speech therapist, Sharon Charmaine Dickman, offers a useful strategy to help parents engage their child in play with others and ways they can enhance their growth through play.

Why some children prefer playing alone

When playing with others, there are some skills that are needed. They include:

  • Knowing how to respond to others (e.g. Jane asks Kim if she can join her but Kim does not understand what Jane is saying and walks away)
  • Being able to share the same objects, feelings, and ideas (e.g. Lionel, who does not understand the social rule of turn-taking, does not know that he will get his turn again, so he cries the moment the toy is taken from him for his friend’s turn)
  • Seeing things from someone else’s point of view or imagining others’ thoughts/feelings (e.g. Anna likes watching blocks fall, so she feels happy knocking down James’ tower not knowing that he will be upset)


If your child finds it a challenge to understand spoken languages or unpredictable social rules, it will be difficult for him/her to know how to interact with others.

It will also be difficult for a child with communication difficulties to express how they want to play with their toys. If they have a preferred way of interacting with a toy, they may get upset when others play with it in a different way (e.g. Tom who enjoys spinning the wheels of his toy car, does not understand why Sandra is pushing his car across the floor and as he sees the car moving away from him, he starts to cry).

How you can help engage your child in play

A parent training programme, It Takes Two to Talk® by The Hanen Centre®, shares a helpful strategy with an easy to remember mnemonic: O.W.L.

O – Observe (your child’s interest)
W – Wait (for his/her response)
L – Listen (for his/her communication)

Here are some practical examples on using the O.W.L strategy with your children:

Example 1: Puzzle Play

– Child fixes alphabet puzzles in order
– When he/she is done, he/she pours out the letters and starts fixing it again

Wait: (for child’s response)
– As child fixes the letter “a”, you hold out letter “b” for him/her
– He/she looks at you then takes the letter
– Continue the interaction with other letters
– As the interaction gets more consistent, only present the letter after he/she looks at you

Listen: (to verbal and non-verbal communication)
– He/she communicates interest by accepting the letters from you
– Follow his/her lead to stop when he/she starts keeping the puzzle or runs off to another toy

Example 2: Drawing Activity

– Child scribbles across the page using many different coloured crayons

Wait: (for child’s response)
– Take your own sheet of paper to make your own doodles/drawings next to him/her
– If he/she is looking at/seems interested in one of your drawings, try adding it to her paper
– Make your actions predictable by pointing to what you are going to add and where you will be drawing on his/her paper
– As the interaction gets consistent, allow time for her to initiate pointing (to request)

Listen: (to verbal and nonverbal communication)
– If he/she snatches your crayon, pick another colour or get your own set

To answer Mrs Tan’s question, we would like to encourage her to use the O.W.L strategy by following these general steps:

  1. Watch how Andrew plays by sitting quietly near him as he plays with his favourite toy
  2. Do not tell him what to do
  3. Put yourself in the play activity by helping him for his next step or imitating what he does
  4. Watch what he does when you join in his play and notice his facial expressions and body movements (which will express his comfort level with the change you introduced)
  5. Find a way for Andrew to initiate communication by referring to Examples 1 and 2
  6. Continue the interaction for as long as Andrew is interested


It may take several tries for your child to be comfortable with your presence as an observer or as a play partner. The whole process to establish an interaction routine may take from a few minutes to a few weeks depending on your child. Follow your child’s interest and communication to proceed at his/her pace.

Article contributed by SPD’s speech therapist, Sharon Dickman.

Reference: Pepper, J., Weitzman, E., & Hanen Centre. (2004). It Takes Two to Talk: A Practical Guide for Parents of Children with Language Delays. The Hanen Centre.