Supporting Autistic Children through Structured Play
Engaging in play is an important part of child development. There are numerous benefits derived from playing such as developing imagination and creativity, cognitive growth, building social skills, improving literacy, encouraging independence and promoting physical fitness.
While autistic children enjoy playing, they may find some types of play difficult. This can be due to the development of social and communication skills which are important skills needed for play, such as the ability to:
- copy simple actions
- explore the environment
- share objects and attention with others
- imagine what other children are thinking and feeling
- respond to others
- take turns
Let’s explore the different types of play. There are 6 main types of play which develop in stages:
- Exploratory Play – Children explore objects and toys, rather than playing with them. This is how children learn about the world around them. Encourage your child to explore objects around them as part of everyday activities. Feel the properties of objects like different types of balls, run sand through the fingers, touch soap in both bar and liquid forms.
- Cause and Effect Play – This involves playing with toys that needs an action done in order to get a result. An example would be pressing a button which then makes a sound or something pops up. This kind of play teaches a child that their actions have effects and can give them a sense of control. This kind of play is great for taking turns.
- Toy Play – This is learning how to play with the toys in the way they were designed. Toy play can help a child develop thinking, problem-solving and creative skills as they figure out what to do with their toys.
- Constructive Play – Done through making or building things, it involves working towards completing a goal or product such as a puzzle or art project. This type of play can be supported by showing a child what to do through the use of video modeling, photos or visual supports that break down the steps.
- Physical Play – This is active play with movement that supports gross motor skills. Outdoor play or any kind of physical play will help a child explore their environment and interact with other people.
- Pretend Play – Pretend play develops the imagination. Examples of this are pretending to eat in a restaurant, flying on an airplane, becoming a character or object like a train, or using the couch as a fort. This type of play develops the skills needed for social relationships, language and communication.
Understanding Structured Play
Structured play is when an adult provides resources, starts play or joins in with children’s play to offer some direction or guidelines. Structured play activities support autistic children who are learning play skills such as sharing, taking turns and interacting with other children.
Structured play activities provide clear guidelines about what to do and when, and has a clear end point thus reducing the number of play scenario options which can overwhelm an autistic child. Providing structure can also help a child understand the steps, skills, activities or ideas that are needed to get to the end goal of the activity.
Providing structure creates predictability, which lowers anxiety and stress, allowing a child to be more comfortable exploring play and interaction with other children. With some practice, a child may be able to start and finish an activity independently.
How do you structure a play activity?
A play activity can be structured by providing a clear beginning, middle and end to the activity. Choose something that supports this idea such as putting together a puzzle, creating a pretend pizza with toppings, coloring in a coloring book, playing bingo or matching games.
Provide the steps to the activity using visual supports. Start with one-step visuals. If playing with a school bus, start with have the students line up for the bus. The next step could be have the students board the bus, next step is push the bus. You can use real photos of each of these steps, practice these steps one at a time, then start combining the 3 separate steps one at a time. As play becomes more fluent, fade the visual supports. Video modeling is another way to break down all the steps to a play activity.
There is an excellent book that visually breaks down all the steps on how to do art projects called Climbing Art Obstacles. Another great book that explores supporting play with visuals and structured ideas is Tasks Galore – Let’s Play.
A Few Structured Play Tips
- Choose activities that the child can do. Think about the child’s developmental stage.
- Use interests to motivate playing.
- Support a child’s strengths. If they are good at counting, try and add that in. If they can put things together, find activities that support that.
- Let participation happen gradually so as not to overwhelm a child. Help children’s attention span gradually increase.
- Talk only as much as you need to.
- Organize short play activities instead of multi-step activities.
- Guide a child to use a step-by-step schedule of play activities, making sure they understand how to do it before increasing activities during playtime.
- Redirect inappropriate play by showing other possibilities with that object.
- Praise, encourage, and acknowledge all of a child’s efforts during play.
Expanding Structured Play
As a child learns to complete structured play activities independently, you can begin to expand how long you play and the number of activities you do with a child. Add other activities that relate to a child’s interests to support growth. Gradually increase the numbers of steps in a play sequence.
Resources for Play Ideas
de Fina, C. and Anderson, A. Play and Autistic Children. Raising Children Network
de Fina, C. Structured Play: new skills for autistic children. Raising Children Network
Nguyen, T. Structured play with children with autism. Vinmec Times City International Hospital
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