Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Teaching Play Skills







Play skills can sometimes be seen as unimportant, or delegated to the bottom of the list of important skills to teach to a child with Autism. I often observe many play skill deficits in my clients during the assessment or initial interview, such as the child shoves every toy I hand them into their mouth, the child doesn’t play with toys as designed, the child refuses to share, the child can only attend to a toy for a few seconds, etc. I do understand why for most parents skills such as language, toilet training, and appropriate behaviors are deemed the most important skills to teach. However, I would advise being sure to teach your child how to play.

 Play skills affect a variety of learning situations, and a child who cannot play appropriately will have a very hard time making social connections. This is because for children, much of their communication and interaction occurs through play. Small children don’t introduce themselves, shake hands, exchange business cards, and begin to debate the state of the economy. A child walks up to another child, says “Wanna play?”, and a friendship is born. If your child lacks appropriate play skills they will be at a social disadvantage, as well as have difficulty with basic concepts such as: sharing/negotiation, conflict resolution, turn taking/reciprocity, manners/rules, etc. Small children often learn these basic concepts through the intricate complexities of play. 
See, play is important!


There is a basic hierarchy of play skills, based on developmental levels:

  • Solitary play- Carrie will play or engage with a toy, as long as no one sits next to her or tries to interact with her. If someone tries to sit down with Carrie, she turns her back to the person or scoots away. If the person tries to touch her toy, she gets up and walks away.
  • Parallel play- Carrie will play or engage with a toy while in close proximity to other children or adults, and sometimes she will look at how the other child is engaging with their own toy. Mainly, Carrie focuses on her own toy and does not interact with the peer or adult.
  • Interactive play- Carrie will share a toy with a peer or adult, and will take turns appropriately. This could include passing a toy back and forth, or imitating each others play. Carrie may still play silently, or avoid eye contact with the other person.
  • Cooperative play- Carrie will play and engage with another person, while playing with separate toys or sharing one toy. Carrie will look at the other person and make eye contact. This could include building a block tower together, or working together to solve a puzzle.
  • Pretend play- Carrie will engage in imaginative play (either alone or with others) that involves elements of pretend. This could include cuddling a doll and pretending the doll is crying, cooking a pretend meal using Play-Dough, or playing dress up (Dress up play should include an understanding of the character. Such as putting on a fireman hat and pretending to be a fireman).
  • Rule based play- Carrie will play highly social and competitive games with other persons, such as sports, board games, card games, and video games. Carrie can also play games that other children make up on the spot and can easily adhere to rules of the game that constantly change.

You can likely view these basic definitions and already see where your child is in their play skill development. Depending on the specific deficits your child has, they may move through the play levels easily. For other children, they stall at certain play levels or skip some play levels altogether. What is most important is to look at children the same age as your child, and closely observe their play. That is your standard to compare your child’s play skills to.


When teaching play skills  it’s helpful to create a plan of implementation. Approach play skills just like any other skill you would teach. Set concrete, small goals, determine how you will measure progress, and embed reinforcement into the task. Yes, you may have to reinforce the child in order for them to play with the toy or with you.

Here are some general guidelines for teaching play skills. These tips can be helpful for parents or professionals:

  • It is typically easier to teach play skills with an adult first, before bringing in peers. Adults are more predictable and less demanding than children, and for this reason children with Autism may easily play or interact with adults but avoid, hit, or refuse to play with other children.
  • It is best to start teaching play skills with simple cause-and-effect toys, such as a Jack in The Box or a keyboard. Avoid imaginative, work based, or complex toys, such as puzzles, figurines, dolls, or Play Dough. If you hand a child with no play skills a lump of Play Dough, they will likely try to eat or lick it.
  • Many people don’t realize it, but strong imitation skills are a pre-requisite of pretend play. A child who cooks a pretend meal, or comforts a “crying” baby doll, is a child who has likely observed someone else perform these actions.
  • In order to teach play skills, you should model a happy and excited affect. The child is observing not just the play skill, but your face, voice tone, and mannerisms. Make sound effects, clap, laugh, smile, speak in funny voices, yell, and cheer as you play with the child.
  • It is so important to minimize problem behaviors during play. If the child is engaging in vocal or motor stims, crying, trying to escape, or being non-compliant when you are trying to teach play skills then that’s a problem. Stimming can be socially stigmatizing and confuse peers. Conduct a FBA to determine the function of the problem behavior and create a behavior plan. Nip these behaviors in the bud before introducing peers into the play sessions.
  • Talk to the child during play. Typical children usually talk while they are playing (even if they play alone).
  • Have F-U-N!



10 comments:

  1. As a parent starting out on an ABA program for my 5 yr old son in the UK, your blog is a real source of encouragement and motivation for me to keep on finding ways to interact with my child. Thank you so very much. :)

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    1. Congrats on starting ABA with your son, I hope you find the therapy to be beneficial!

      Thank you for your kind words :-)

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  2. You are right! Play should be considered as one of the important activities in a child's schedule. Incorporating Play activities in ABA therapy will help better in a child's development.

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  3. Thanks for commenting!

    I completely believe in the necessity of play for children and their development, and it can definitely be incorporated into ABA treatment.

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  4. Hi. Is there a list of people who can carry out this work with my son in the uk?

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    1. Hello,

      It can be quite challenging to locate ABA staff. The Behavior Analysis Certification Board (BACB) maintains a directory on their site of Behavior Analysts, but not all Behavior Analysts provide 1:1 services.
      You may need to do some digging online to try and locate individuals either in your area, or willing to move to your area, who have ABA training. I am not familiar with available ABA services in the UK, but if there are ABA companies/agencies I suggest starting there.
      I also have a post on my blog about locating/hiring ABA staff. I hope it is helpful. I will include links to the post, as well as the BACB website below:

      www.bacb.com
      http://www.iloveaba.com/2011/11/hiring-aba-therapists-interview.html

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  5. I know you mean well, but some of this is incredibly harmful. Stimming is necessary for autistic people like me: It's not a problem behavior, it just helps me process the sensory input from a world that was not designed for people like me. Restricting a child from stimming not only takes away an important coping mechanism, but teaches them that they have no autonomy oftheir bodies. If stimming is confusing to neurotypical peers, it is their responsibility to learn how to be respectful.
    Additionally, it is not always important that children develop "typical" play or play the way adults expect them to. Thinking about my childhood, I never really reached the "rule-based play" stage. I can play board games but I find them frusterating and not enjoyable. I can not play team sports at all, I always get confused about the rules and forget who is on which team. I am twenty years old and I still can not process so much information at once as is necessary to enjoy playing team sports with friends.
    Yet, I am a happy and functional adult. I am a full-time student at a liberal arts college, I work part-time and in summers, and I have a small group of friends with whom I am incredibly close. Just because a child does not play the way you expect them too does not mean that they can't ever be independent and happy adults.

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    1. Hi Sage,

      Thank you for both your comment, and your perspective.

      As the post states, this is a general guideline that can be followed based on how play skills typically develop. Intervention is always individualized, depending on the unique needs and strengths of the person.

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    2. Hello,

      I found your blog really informative, thank you.

      I'm currently working with a 6 year old girl who has a complete inability to play. The closest she will get is getting toys out then putting them away 30 seconds later, getting paper out, cutting it up and putting it away, "role-playing" with her sister, or looking over at what her sister is doing.

      This girl doesn't have autism, but is a fostered child with a history of severe neglect.

      Do you have any advice or ideas of what could help this child to learn to play?

      Many thanks,
      Rachel

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    3. Hi Rachel,

      You raise a great point, thank you for commenting. Although my blog is often geared towards Autism, ABA therapy can (and is) effective for a wide variety of individuals/diagnoses. So any of the information you see in the post can be used to develop strategies for the child you are working with.

      I also suggest working with a BCBA in your area to develop an individualized treatment plan that can target play/socio-emotional development.

      Good luck!

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