How to Help Your Child Develop Social Skills Through Cooperative Play

How to Help Your Child Develop Social Skills Through Cooperative Play

Socializing forms a big part of our everyday lives. From exchanging polite conversation with strangers to cementing lasting relationships with our family and friends, the ability to talk and engage with our peers is an incredibly useful skill to have. But for those with autism, being social doesn’t always come naturally.

Children usually pick up on social cues at an early age by watching their parents and attempting to imitate the way they behave. But for children with autism, it is far more difficult to understand the actions of the people around them. Simple facial expressions and body language that we take for granted can be challenging for an autistic child to comprehend, making it difficult for them to communicate properly. On top of this, the outdoors can be incredibly overwhelming, with sufferers of hypersensitivity unable to cope with the noise of the crowds or the brightness of the sun.  But this doesn’t mean that children with autism should miss out on the benefits of cooperative play.

Pretend Play Encourages Decision Making

It has long been known that play helps establish vital social skills in young children, giving them a medium through which they can express their thoughts and ideas.  And there is no activity more important for this process than pretend play. When a child uses their imagination, they aren’t simply creating wild and fruitless fantasies, but are actually working through potential versions of reality in their minds. Pretend play works for children in much the same way that daydreaming works for grown-ups.  As adults, we solve problems and make key decisions by playing out scenarios in our heads. Children do the same thing when they are playing, only in a much more physical way.

While children with autism may appear as if they don’t want to interact with those around them, this is often not the entire story.  Although they may have a hard time expressing it, most children with autism want to get involved with play as much as any other child. The idea behind mutual play is to allow children to interact with one another on their terms, rather than dictating how their games should unfold.  Of course, there needs to be boundaries and the involvement of all children should be ensured, but the inclusion of unstructured play in a child’s daily routine can be incredibly important.

While adult-directed games work for most children, an autistic child may struggle to follow the carefully set out rules. Instead, play should focus on getting children together and helping them foster their imagination. Studies suggest that autistic children who regularly take part in unstructured play are more likely to improve their social skills than those who are reliant on more structured teaching methods. By enabling children to decide on games and activities for themselves, you give them the chance to think about the needs of the entire group. Although it might take an adult to suggest a theme of play, children’s imaginations are what allow them to make that idea work for everyone.

Messy Play Allows Children To Experiment

Another useful tool for learning is messy play. Giving children the opportunity to get hands on with mud, sand, or water provides a sensory experience that can’t be matched by other activities. Sensory play is a key component of SEN learning and can help those with hyposensitivity make more sense of the world around them. It can also be the perfect chance to introduce the ideas of sharing and cooperation.

During messy play, children must seek the help of others to help them complete tasks. Whether it’s filling buckets full of water or sharing equipment such as spades, social skills quickly become an important part of the process. Mud kitchens are a prime example of cooperative play in action, because they require children to think about how they can work together to create muddy masterpieces. For children with autism, messy play offers a relatively stress-free environment, in which they can put their social understanding into practice. The heightened sensory experience makes the game that much more engaging and encourages children to laugh and learn together.

Playtime Tips For Parents And Carers

While unstructured play is important for independent development, a structured ending to play sessions can also be beneficial. Children with autism tend to benefit from order and routine. A visual reminder that playtime is over (such as flashcards) can help them wind down appropriately and come to a natural stop. It’s also worth introducing new children to the scenario slowly. Often even one extra child can be overwhelming for those with autism, but, if managed properly, a relationship can be forged. As long as you continue to reinforce the importance of cooperation, then you should find that the other children will be sensitive to the needs of everyone in the group. The key to progress is motivation and repetition: the more engaging you can make cooperative play, the more likely you are to receive a positive response.

This article was featured in Issue 48 – Connecting and Communicating with Autism

Sam Flatman

Sam Flatman is an outdoor learning specialist and an Educational Consultant for Pentagon Play. Sam has been designing school playground equipment for the past 10 years and has a passion for outdoor education. He believes that outdoor learning is an essential part of child development, which should be integrated into the school curriculum at every opportunity. Website: Pentagon’s Facebook: Pentagon’s Twitter: and Pentagon's Pinterest:

  • Avatar Lucy Taylor says:

    What a helpful article! I appreciate that you pointed out that play is such an important aspect in the proper development of an autistic child (or any child for that matter)! I like how you pointed out that pretend play, and interacting in sensory play can be so important to helping the child build not only better social skills, but also helps them build problem solving skills as well. Helping a child to develop these skills is truly setting a child up to succeed. I think it’s important for children (especially those of whom land on the autism spectrum) have a safe, controlled, and comfortable space to play. This can help them to build relationships, and learn. I really appreciated this article!

  • >