Games and activities to develop play skills
Social interaction is not only about engaging with other people, but also encompasses knowing how people are generally expected to (re)act in particular situations. There are a number of processes involved in any form of social interaction, including being able to note social cues, interpreting what is taking place, problem solving, and responding.
Being able to interact with other people is a part of so much we do, and is the cornerstone of our relationships with friends and families. However, for children on the spectrum, many forms of social interaction can be challenging.
This can mean that it is difficult to engage with people at school, with peers, and with family members, and this can lead to a sense of isolation. The difficulties that children with autism face when interacting socially can therefore become a source of great anxiety. It can also mean that they become the subject of bullying, particularly if other children are unable to understand the way in which autism can impact on social interaction, or find it difficult to accept the way in which children on the spectrum engage with others.
How do play skills help with social interaction?
Learning how to play both alone and with other children can be the means through which children with autism are able to develop their social interaction skills. These are commonly referred to as play skills, and can have an important role in helping children on the spectrum to engage with teachers, carers, siblings and peers. This is because play skills can help children learn to play together, share toys, or take turns in games.
Being able to play and engage with others can also reduce feelings of isolation and help children to feel as though they belong. Likewise, play skills are useful in teaching children basic conflict management skills, e.g., when a game doesn’t go your way, or another person isn’t playing fairly, as well as how to cooperate and share.
Play skills can also help children with autism to develop their conversational skills (including the ability to read body language), their emotional skills, which encompasses interpreting their own and others’ feelings, as well as problem solving skills (including negotiation and making decisions).
Just as importantly as all of these, the ability to play is one of the primary ways in which many children of all ages have fun and relax.
Why are play skills important for children with autism?
Play skills can help the development of children with autism in a number of ways. For instance, they can help them develop the ability to copy actions, respond to other people, imagine what others may be feeling, and explore their environment.
They can also be of benefit in the acquisition of functional skills that are used in daily living activities, e.g., tea party or dressing up games. Similarly, play can help children on the spectrum to learn more about their own and other people’s bodies, and help them to develop planning and memory skills.
These skills can be developed both through intrapersonal play (playing alone) and interpersonal play (playing with others).
Developing play skills for children on the spectrum
Play skills can be learnt and developed through teaching and practice in the same way that many other skills are. This means that there are a variety of approaches that parents and carers can take, such as teaching in the moment (also referred to as naturalistic teaching) and structured play groups, or through intervention programs and therapy.
The approach and strategies that you adopt will likely depend on your child’s development, and should be designed to help extend their play skills. It is also helpful to remember that the learning of play skills should be enjoyable and engaging.
At first, this may mean that only people with whom your child is comfortable should be involved in the play experience, and that it takes place using activities with which they feel most at ease. Over time, it may be that less familiar people and places can become involved, and the range of play skills extended.
Some children on the spectrum display a marked preference for playing on their own, and will make no attempt to initiate play with others, or even actively try to avoid it. This can mean that they are missing opportunities to develop their social interaction skills and the other skills learnt through play.
Strategies that can be used for encouraging limited interaction with others during play can include:
- Getting close to your child during their solitary play activities and then engaging their attention. This might be done through mirroring their actions or copying any sounds they are making. For instance, if they are pushing a toy car, you could make engine noises, or if they are playing with toy animals, making the animals run and jump.
- You might like to try and join in a solitary play activity, such as playing with Lego, by adding a brick to something they have built.
- You could try to initiate play yourself by playing with one of your child’s favourite toys, and then encouraging and inviting them to join you once they engage with you.
- Introduce and encourage the idea of play as a social activity by using prompting phrases such as “Let’s play,” or “We can play together.”
- Use reinforcement and encouragement in play activities through phrases like, “Good playing.
Parallel play is when your child plays alongside other children with the same or a similar toy, during which time they might engage with these other children for limited periods of time before then returning to their own toy or activity. Parallel play presents an opportunity for children to learn different ways of playing with a toy through observation and joint attention, to develop turn taking skills, and to learn how to respond to simple demands and requests.
During parallel play, some of the strategies that can be used for encouraging social interaction include:
- Directing your child’s attention to the activities of other children by using phrases such as , “Look at what they are doing,” or “What are they doing now?”
- Providing games and activities that require turn taking, and then teaching and encouraging the use of appropriate verbal prompts, such as, “My turn,” or “Your turn.”
- Teaching and encouraging appropriate prompts that enable your child to request a toy or activity from another child. These can be either verbal or non-verbal.
Also called cooperative play, this is when your child plays with other children and engages both with them and their joint activities. Social play helps children on the spectrum to interact socially with their peers and others, and also to develop a range of new play skills through observation and engagement.
Cooperative play can include a combination of both structured (organised by you) and unstructured activities (where children play without direction). It may be that the length of time spent interacting, and the number of children involved in these activities, is limited at first but then increases over time.
Some strategies for developing your child’s play skills through social play include:
- Designing tasks and activities that have a clear start and finishing point.
- Using structured or organised activities that encourage joint participation, e.g., music time, dress up time, etc.
- Using unstructured activity time to encourage and develop decision making skills , e.g., your child is able to choose from different toys or games.
- Using prompts and modelling language that helps your child learn how to engage with others when playing, e.g., “Can I play?”, “Will you play with me?”, “Can I have a turn next, please?”, etc.
- Modelling and encouraging turn taking and the language associated with this, such as “Your turn,” “My turn,” “Jane’s turn now,” etc.
- Encouraging engagement and joint attention by using phrases such as, “Look at what they are doing” or “What are they doing now?”
- Creating a play environment where your child can develop skills that help them undertake change or transition, such as moving from one game or activity to another.
Games and activities that help to develop play skills for children on the spectrum
Some of the first play skills that children develop are those that help them to explore the world and objects around them. You can encourage the development of these skills through activities like splashing in the bath, or putting their hands under running water.
It can also be helpful to introduce and demonstrate toys where an action leads to a result, e.g., pushing the button on a jack-in-the-box, or winding up a music box so it can play. These sorts of toys and games help children to understand that an action can produce an effect, and also gives them greater confidence that they are in control of their play. This can also encourage children to explore other similar toys and activities, while presenting opportunities for sharing and taking turns.
Another form of activity that helps to develop play skills is functional play. This means learning to play with toys like telephones, balls and trains in a way that reflects their primary function, e.g., bringing the phone to their ear and talking, throwing and catching a ball, pushing a train and making train noises, etc. This sort of play presents opportunities for social engagement, as you can model the actions and sounds, and then take turns playing with the toy, etc.
Constructive play incorporates games and activities where there is a clear end result. Drawing and colouring pictures, building structures from Lego, or completing a jigsaw puzzle are examples of this sort of play skill. Constructive play can provide children with opportunities to develop their skills in following instructions, as modelling can be helpfully used.
Physical play gives children opportunities to engage and interact with the world around them, while also providing exercise and developing motor skills. Running, jumping, rolling on the ground and other similar games and activities are also an effective way of encouraging children to interact with their peers and other people.
Dress up and pretend play can also be a helpful way for children to develop their social interaction skills. Wearing a superhero costume, having a make believe tea party, or pretending to drive a car or plane, are all play skills that can also help children to develop language and communication skills. Pretend play can also incorporate role play and the acting out of stories, by having fun with the voices and costumes of different characters.