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The Importance of Play Skills

Where science & compassion meet the challenge of autism.

Play is an important part of social development for younger children, allowing them to learn about the world through interactions with parents and their peers. Increased playtime leads to a decrease in inappropriate behaviors and self-stimulation and promotes independence during free time.

For teens and older children, leisure skills are a key component to leading a fulfilled, happy lifestyle and provide an opportunity to be a part of the community-at-large through social activities.

So, what are play skills?

"Pleasurable activity a child engages in for its own sake, with means emphasized rather than ends. Play is not usually engaged in as a serious activity and is flexible in that it varies in form and context."
(Dworetzky, 1996)

Play ...

  • Is pleasurable
  • Requires active engagement
  • Is spontaneous, voluntary and intrinsically motivated
  • Is flexible and changing
  • Has a non-literal orientation

Early Skills Developed through Play and Social Interactions:

  • Resilience
  • Attending
  • Joint attention
  • Curiosity
  • Persistence
  • Motivation
  • Reciprocity
  • Turn taking
  • Seeking approval
  • Gestures
  • Facial Cues
  • Desire for novelty
  • Imitation
  • Problem solving
  • Cause/effect relationships
  • Foundation for perspective taking
  • Initiation
  • Responding
  • Action/consequence
  • Anticipation

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Types of Play

Exploratory Play -

A time for exploration and manipulation of objects as children begin to explore and understand their world.

  • Mouthing objects
  • Handling objects
  • Smelling objects
  • Rolling/throwing/banging toys (e.g., child banging blocks together instead of stacking them)
Social Play -
Functional Play -

Functional play is a form of play that includes any act involving conventional use of an object or toy.

  • Task completion
  • Visual-spatial acuity
  • Fine and gross motor skills
  • Attention
  • Usually solitary play
Symbolic/Pretend Play -

The state at which make-believe play is incorporated into play.

  • Role playing
  • Use of an object for an unintended purpose (e.g., using a banana as a phone)
  • Familiar schemas played out with inanimate objects (e.g., feeding a baby doll)

Children with ASD often do not know how to play with toys on their own, without some formal teaching due to:

  • Lack of varied spontaneous make-believe play or social imitative play appropriate to their developmental level.
  • Restricted, repetitive, and/or stereotyped patterns of behavior, interests, and activities.
  • Delays or abnormal functioning in symbolic or imaginative play.
  • Lack of emotional involvement.
  • Lack of social reinforcement.
  • Impaired development in social interactions.
  • Impaired development in communication.
  • Competing behavior such as stereotypy.

Playing with Your Child

Sometimes you may find it challenging to play with your child. Your child may actively avoid your attempts to play with them, not show interest in age appropriate activities, or engage in challenging or competing behaviors during play activities.

Playing with your child helps make you more reinforcing and should be a mutually enjoyable experience where you can discover what your child likes and does not like. By creating an enjoyable experience you'll be inclined to play more often, which creates opportunities for teaching.

How can I play with my child?

  • Observe your child. What do they like to do when not being directed by an adult?
  • Find motor activities they like (e.g., jumping, running, pacing, climbing)
  • Find visual activities they like (e.g., trains, books, TV, computer)
  • Find auditory-based activities they like (e.g., music, singing)

Selecting Toys for Play

  • Toys should be interesting to your child.
  • Keep in mind your child's motor skills, sensory challenges, and developmental needs.
  • Assess your child's stereotypic behavior and select toys that could replace those behaviors. For example, if a stereotypic behavior of your child involves jumping up and down, a toy that may allow for replacement of that behavior in a more appropriate context would be a mini-trampoline.

How can you incorporate language into playtime with your child?

  • Model language while playing with toys.
    • Example: You are sliding little toys down a slide in a playset. You say "wheee," as your toy goes down the slide.
  • Reinforce language during play.
    • Example: Your child makes a spontaneous statement during play, such as "look." Ensure that you look immediately, smile, and give behavior specific praise such as, "great asking me to look!!"
  • Use written prompts/scripts to increase language.
    • Example: You are playing a turn taking game with your child. Your child is a reader, and when it is your turn, you provide a textual prompt for your child to read, "your turn."
  • Use video models.
    • Video tape you and another child playing with a playset and demonstrate appropriate language. Use the video as a teaching strategy.

Getting Started

  • Identify your child's skill level.
  • Determine prerequisite skills that your child may need before introducing activities.
    • Gross and fine motor imitation
    • Responding to simple instructions
    • Level of eye contact
    • Ability to sit for 2-5minutes
  • Select activities that will be easily mastered at first and then slowly increase the complexity of activities.
  • Pair yourself with preferred activities.
  • Control access and provide the activity contingent on approaching you or initiating an interaction with you (incidental teaching).
  • Slowly begin to interact with your child.
  • Initiate preferred activities often.
  • Adapt activities to meet your child's abilities.

Would you like to learn more about our social skills program?

Request Program Information

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