Teaching Leisure Skills

Recommended posts: Task Completion, Toy play

A few weeks ago, in my Top 10 post I discussed recommendations I make to families over and over again regarding common issues new clients present with.
A common concern I hear from parents is “my child just wanders the house all day long”, “he is constantly putting things in his mouth”, "I have to keep my eyes on him/her ALL day long", “she just sits in the living room and stares out the window”. What these issues are all describing is a lack of leisure skills.

Leisure skills are those skills, interests, and hobbies, most of us have that serve the function of unwinding, relaxation, socialization (if it involves others), or simple enjoyment. This is an important life skill. In an ABA program it can sometimes be easy to focus on skill acquisition and filling in gaps in development and miss the big picture. Why does a 3 year old need to know how to entertain themselves without adult involvement or engagement? Because one day he will be 19. What will he do then when he is bored, or mom and dad are busy? Spin in circles? Stand on the kitchen counter? Or, will he be able to go to the game closet, pull out the Scrabble game, and make sentences using the letter tiles?

For me, my main “go -to” leisure skills are cooking, video games, or chatting with friends. If I am alone, bored, frustrated, agitated, or finish an activity, I don’t need someone to give me something to do or pull me out of my funk. I have the ability to think of an activity, engage in that activity, and independently complete the activity.

So question time: Can you say the same for your child with Autism? When your child is bored, what do they do? When you are not able to give your child attention, can they entertain themselves? When your child finishes one activity, can they independently start another?

Another reason I often recommend teaching leisure skills is for children who spend their time engaging in disruptive or intrusive behaviors all day long, such as pacing, running up and down the stairs, spinning in chairs, throwing toys against walls, etc. I recently completed an observation of a new client who spent my entire 2 hour observation completing laps around the family dining room table. She would circle the table on her tiptoes, stop and look at me, jump a few times, and repeat. Her parents stated if left unattended she would engage in this circuit all day long. This is a scenario where everyone involved would likely agree that the child is bored, seeking stimulation, and the time would be better spent playing games or engaging in a structured activity.

So before we jump into exactly how to teach leisure skills, allow me to clear up a few misconceptions. Firstly, just because you think a game/activity/toy will be enjoyable for your child does not mean they will agree. Understand that leisure skills will likely need to be intensively taught before you see your child begin to spontaneously and independently select a game or toy to interact with. 

Secondly, you must select replacement behaviors. Do not try to compete with repetitive behaviors and get your child to play Monopoly with you—you will lose. Instead, reinforce what you want them to do (sit down and play the game), redirect as needed, and help them be successful with the activity.

Lastly, systematic prompting is your friend. Start at a level of expectation where your child can experience some success. Perhaps bring out the board game, and then play for 20-30 seconds. Prompt the child to play the game with you and when the timer goes off, they are all done. Gradually increase the amount of time spent engaging with the game, and gradually reduce the prompts you provide.

Here are some strategies to teach appropriate leisure skills to replace inappropriate problem behaviors:

        -Begin teaching this concept by using simple Work Boxes, or “Busy Boxes” consisting of easy or mastered targets. For example, have a busy box filled with crayons and cut outs of shapes. Set a timer and prompt the child to color the shapes. When the timer goes off, put the busy box away. Gradually increase the length of time, and introduce new or unknown tasks. Eventually it will be helpful to set up an area in your home where your child can sit and engage with leisure activities, such as books, puzzles, bubbles, board games, card games, etc.

       - Use a First/Then visual to help the child understand that they must complete the non-preferred task to access the preferred item/ task. Or, “First you sit down and  color, then you can go play”. Once the child understands the concept of first/ then, create a visual schedule of preferred and non -preferred activities. For example: “Eat snack. Leisure Time, 2 minutes. Play Outside. Leisure Time, 4 minutes. Play on Ipad.”

       - Teach independence with this skill from the very start. Reduce your prompting and involvement as soon as you can. Try to prompt through silent gestures only, or prompt standing behind the child. Remember that eventually you want the child to complete these leisure activities independently.

     -   Use a visual choice board to allow the child to select what activity they want to complete. Particularly for non compliant children, embedding choice into leisure time activities will make the process go much smoother.

       - Provide reinforcement for engagement in appropriate leisure skill activities, such as looking at a book or completing a puzzle. Praise what you want to see continue!

    -    Provide multiple opportunities per hour for the child to select a leisure activity, and modify the environment if you need to. If your child's favorite activity is the Ipad, then now access to the Ipad is contingent upon completing 2 leisure activities. 

*Tip- Resources for creating visual schedules:


  1. Thanks for the article! Very helpful.
    I'm a mom of a 9 year old with autism. I've been teaching him using ABA for nearly 5 years. I've recently been debating the idea of working as an ABA therapist with other kids. Your blog has been very inspiring and helpful in making that decision.

    1. Thanks for commenting! :-)

      Parent BCBAs or ABA therapists have SO much perspective and insight to bring to the field. I say go for it!

  2. Tameika, another insightful article. I really love your blog. I have learned and is still learning a lot from your blog. Have a blessed day ;)


    1. You have a blessed day as well! Thank you for commenting :-)


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