Let's Play!

Play skills can sometimes be seen as unimportant, or delegated to the bottom of the list of important skills to teach to individuals 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 careful not to neglect the development of Play.

Play skills affect a variety of learning situations, particularly school. A child who cannot play appropriately may have a hard time making social connections with other kids. 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 discuss their careers.

A child walks up to another child, starts to play with them, and a friendship is born. If a child lacks appropriate play skills they might be at a social disadvantage, as well as have difficulty with basic concepts learned through play, such as: sharing/negotiation, respecting personal space, conflict resolution, turn taking/reciprocity, manners/rules, etc. 

See, play is important!

There is a basic hierarchy of play skills, based on developmental levels (*this is a suggested hierarchy, not iron-clad rules):

  • 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 or client is in their play skill development. 

Depending on the specific issues, a child could move through the play levels easily. For other children, they stall at certain play levels or skip some play levels altogether. And does it matter precisely how play develops? Not so much, no.
What is more important is to support this developmental skill in your child or client, and prepare them for social interactions as they age.  

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 need to contrive motivation for play skills to be developed. 

Here are some general (again, not iron-clad rules) 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 social impairments may easily play or interact with adults but avoid, hit, or refuse to play with peers.
  • 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 have no idea what to do with it.
  • Many people don’t realize it, but strong imitation skills can be a pre-requisite of pretend play. A child who cooks a pretend meal, or comforts a “crying” baby doll, is a child who has observed someone else perform these actions.
  • In order to teach play skills, you should be fun to play with. That may sound obvious, but if the roles were reversed would YOU want to play with you? 
  • It is so important to minimize problem behaviors during play. If the child is off-task, crying, trying to escape, or being aggressive when you are trying to teach play skills then that could stall progress. Conduct a FBA to determine the function of the problem behavior and create a behavior plan. Work on these behaviors before introducing peers into the play sessions.
  • Talk during play. Children typically talk or babble while they are playing (even if they play alone, they still narrate what's happening).


  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. :)

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

      Thank you for your kind words :-)

  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.

  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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