Utilizing play-based learning to teach social skills

Play-based learning

Play and social skills are the building blocks for early learners to succeed in the classroom. While neurotypical children tend to learn these skills naturally through play, our students with moderate to severe disabilities often require more systematic instruction. However, this does not mean that we cannot teach these skills through play-based activities!

Preparing to teach

As you begin to prep your plans for play-based instruction, first identify each of your student’s strengths and interests to ensure they remain engaged during learning. To help discover your students’ preferences and interests, consider:

  • Parent/guardian surveys: develop a survey that you can share with parents/guardians to learn more about your students. Not only is this a great way to get to know your students at the beginning of the year, but it’s also a great way to engage with families
  • Preference assessments: conduct preference assessments or observations with your students to evaluate their most (and least!) preferred items/activities to help guide instruction.

Next, you’ll want to define the skills to target for instruction that will help your students become socially connected and engaged:

  • Try utilizing a play-based model of assessment to evaluate social skills
  • Focus on skills that promote learning in natural and inclusive environments
    • Taking turns
    • Joining play
    • Bids for attention

Once you’ve outlined the steps you need to take to prepare for instruction, you’ll want to determine how to teach in a play-based format.

How to teach

When you’re incorporating play-based learning into your classroom, embed instruction within your students’ natural environment and familiar settings:

  • Regular routines
  • Classroom activities
  • Playground
  • Lunch/snack

Remember to utilize explicit feedback to increase student engagement, play and skills. For example, rather than stating, “I see you’re playing with toys,” try stating, “I see you’re playing with Mr. Potato Head next to Clara!”

Observe, interpret and respond intentionally to your students’ exploration, play and social activity. A few simple ways that you can do this include:

  • Joining in and participating in activities
  • Expanding on your students’ focus
  • Increasing your students’ play-based actions
  • Following your students’ intent.

Also, be sure to encourage students to initiate or sustain positive interactions with the other students through modeling, teaching, feedback and/or other types of guided support.

Incorporating Peers

Another important aspect of play-based learning is the incorporation of peer-mediated intervention to teach skills and to promote student engagement and learning:

Through peer-mediated intervention and observation, your students’ social interaction and communication skills can improve.

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