Play is an integral part of a child’s development. It is how children develop and improve their cognitive and physical skills, as well as their overall emotional well-being. Play is also how children practice social skills, build and establish relationships, develop their language and communication skills, and learn about their world and themselves.
To foster and develop appropriate play skills, as educators we must create a play-based learning environment in which children can explore and express themselves. To do so effectively, it’s important for educators to pair themselves with a preferred play in which the child wants to engage with and learn from.
To get an understanding of what the child’s play repertoire looks like, we must first observe and actively listen to what the child is trying to accomplish within a play routine. This will give a better understanding of what play routines motivate your student, where the strengths are, and where we might need to supplement and teach. By actively listening and observing the student, we can understand the child’s “goal” within the play routine…and help them achieve it.
Narrating is an easy and effective way to pair as a play partner since it requires little effort on the child’s part. Narration exposes the child to play-appropriate language while giving you a chance to indirectly be a part of the play. As the child engages in various actions, you as the educator can narrate what the child is doing. To create motivation, you can add sound effects, exaggerated facial expressions, and simple statements to draw your student’s attention. There is no expectation for the child to share, therefore, you are not interfering in the student’s routine and trust is built between you and the student. Teachers are encouraged to engage with similar toys the student is engaging with to add to the routine and narrate their actions.
Often within play, a student will need help to repair broken toys, or to add a block to the top of the tower. As educators, we can use these opportunities to offer “free” help to the student. By acknowledging there is a problem and offering to help without requiring any verbal response, your student will look to you as someone they can go to and trust. When adults offer help without expecting a response from the child, the child becomes more motivated to have the adult in their space and to interact with their play materials.
Imitation is vital for children to learn since more learning can happen while observing others. This holds true with play. To build motivation and to communicate to your student that they are seen, and what they are doing is “cool,” start by imitating the student’s actions, sound effects, and vocalization by using similar play material. As you continue to imitate your student, your student will become motivated and will become more responsive to imitate you. This is the beginning of establishing a dyadic play routine and interaction.
You can increase motivation by adding your students’ preferred materials, toys, routines, actions, and songs to play. The goal of play-based learning is that the teacher and student are sharing smiles and pleasure within a routine. As long as your student is having fun and engaging – novel actions, routines, turn-taking, eye contact, joint attention, and other skills can be embedded within your routines.
To ensure your routines are successful, have an end goal in mind and create attainable benchmarks that your student can reach. Celebrate each successive approximation and know that progress will take time. Some children will take longer than others to accept others into their play. If you create a strong relationship with your student at the start of each routine and maintain that relationship throughout the routines, you will begin to see the results of play-based learning!
If you are looking for a play-based curriculum, TeachTown’s Meta-Play solution offers a systematic, play-based approach to fostering the development of imagination and play skills in young children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), intellectual disabilities, developmental delays, and social and emotional disabilities.
Lena Kazaryan is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA). She graduated with her master’s degree in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) from the Florida Institute of Technology in 2019. She has been working in the field of ABA for over 11 years and has experience working in a school setting for over eight years. Her passion is in early interventions with a focus on functional communication. When Lena is not working, she enjoys hiking, shopping, and spending time with her two boys.