Early Start Denver Model – Sensory Play


Provide targeted, naturalistic therapy during sensory play using the Early Start Denver Model (ESDM). This model was specifically designed to help children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and other neurodevelopmental disorders engage, connect, learn, communicate and play!

Materials Required

  1. Water, sand, rice, ice, ooblek, mud – a few sensory materials you can find around your home
  2. Large containers or pots to place the sensory materials in
  3. Loose parts: Plastic cups, balls, plastic toys, spoons etc.
  4. Containers with lids to store loose parts


Be sure not to move on to the next step until you have achieved the goal of the current step i.e. don’t move onto Step 2 until the goal of Step 1 is achieved.

Method (or Ideas)

  1. Offer up a couple of choices like sand play or water play and see where your child lands. Join him here and comment with interest, acknowledging each of his actions or play items by labelling with affect.
  2. Narrate/describe his actions. Commenting on how he is playing with the materials e.g. splash, shake, clap, drip, wet. Remember to speak in single words. Continue to praise and describe and don’t worry about touching materials or teaching, yet. The goal is to slowly increase your involvement without challenging him.
  3. Slowly start to involve yourself in his play by offering a cup to him. The goal is to hand them over when the child is facing you and watching your handling of the materials, although eye contact from the child to receive the material is not yet necessary.
  4. Next, offer help. When he’s not looking, put things in containers he cannot open. Be sure to give the item right back as soon as you have helped. The goal is for the child to be facing you so he can see your help with the materials without an expectation yet that he uses a specific behaviour to request the material from you.
  5. Begin to imitate your child, pick up the same material he has and create the same movements, using single words to express the actions. The goal is to capture his eye contact, both on your handling of the material and to your face, and to find his smile in the game.
  6. For every three times you imitate him, give him a choice that relates to the current play activity. E.g. “Pour or Splash?” Let him choose however he wants, regardless of eye contact but remember to label his decision using single words. The goal is for the child to become more active in decision-making and to increase the length of the activity.
  7. For every three times you offer him a choice, ask him to do something in the play e.g. put loose parts in the cup. Whatever it is, make sure there is a fun reward following his compliance. Remember that the consequence has to be worth the effort. The goal is for the child to become more active in play and to take turns following your ideas in play.
  8. For every 3 times you provide a fun reward, have the child respond to your teaching opportunity using a non-verbal behaviour. This could be a gesture, body movement, or eye contact. It has to be directed toward you and relate somehow to this activity. Remember to accept attempts and reward. The goal is to have the child use an intentional behaviour in response to your antecedent, followed by the rewarding consequence. E.g. you might fill your cup with water and slowly lift it higher and higher with lots of excited affect, pause before pouring the water out waiting for your child to cue you to continue, reward this non-verbal behaviour by pouring the water immediately and saying “pour!” with lots of affect.

Facilitation Tips – What To Say

  • Use the ‘one up’ rule with your language: if your child is not speaking yet, use only 1 word. If they are using single words, use 2 words etc.
  • Comment on how your child is using materials e.g. Splash, clap, float, wet, drip, dig , splish splash, pour
  • Comment on how your child is using the loose parts to manipulate the material e.g. scoop, dig, fill, pat, stir

Extend the Experience

Employ the Early Start Denver Model in other aspects of your daily routine and play such as during mealtimes, nappy changes and bath time

You can learn more about the Early Start Denver Model, including information about upcoming training courses for parents, carers and professionals, working with and caring for, children with ASD here

WHO Guidelines for Physical Activity & Sedentary Behaviour

This play experience can become more physically active by placing the containers of sensory materials on a low table where your child can stand to play.

Early Years Learning Framework


  1. Children feel safe, secure, and supported
  2. Children interact verbally and non-verbally with others for a range of purposes
  3. Children develop dispositions for learning such as curiosity, cooperation, confidence, creativity, commitment, enthusiasm, persistence, imagination and reflexivity.


Principle 3: High expectations and equity. Children progress well when they, their parents and educators hold high expectations for their achievement in learning.


Practice: Holistic approaches. They recognise the connections between children, families and communities and the importance of reciprocal relationships and partnerships for learning. They see learning as a social activity and value collaborative learning and community participation. An integrated, holistic approach to teaching and learning also focuses on connections to the natural world.

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