Play is very complex, especially when teaching children with autism, but it is essential to social skills development. Children naturally engage in play on the playground at recess; however, for children with autism, play does not come as easily.
The playground is unpredictable, loud, chaotic, and can be an extremely overwhelming place for a child who likes structure and predictability. So, how can you make the playground become an inviting place for a child with autism?
Last month, in Issue 103, I shared three tips on beginning to teach social skills on the playground. The first step is to observe what is happening on the playground during your child’s recess.
Observe what the kids are talking about and what games and sports are being played.
The next step is to expose your child to the playground culture, which means to start teaching your child how to play the games and sports that are common at recess and to teach him/her about topics other children are talking about.
For example, if other children like talking about Star Wars, teach your child about the basics of Star Wars (i.e., characters, the concept of good vs. evil, etc.) so your child will be able to relate to his/her peers and have some knowledge of what they are talking about. Last but not least, begin to teach your child how to play simple playground games like Tag, Red Rover, etc.
These three steps will help you set your child up for social skills success on the playground.
This is only the beginning. There is so much more to navigate on the playground. In Helping Your Child with Autism Navigate the Playground: Part II, I offer the next three steps to help your child build confidence and social skills while playing with others.
Facilitated play with an adult
Find an adult who can facilitate play. This adult can be you, an aide, or even a high school or college student who needs volunteer hours to meet school requirements. This adult will facilitate a group of 10 children or less to play the simple games you have taught your child (i.e., Simon Says, Red Light/Green Light, etc.).
In the beginning, the adult will facilitate the games, then the adult will start to have peers assist the games. For instance, when playing Red Light/Green Light the adult can let a child lead the game. The adult will slowly transition out of the leadership role and observe to make sure all children are engaged and included.
The concept behind facilitated play is to start off with structured games that include everyone in the playgroup, and then morph those games into either sports, complex games, or pretend play directed by the children of the playgroup. The ultimate goal is for the facilitator to back away and to begin having all the children play and be inclusive with one another. Children with autism will begin to identify with this playgroup and feel included, which will motivate them to socialize with these peers at recess.
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Prompt peers to be inclusive
Just as much as we prompt children with autism on how to play and stay engaged, it is just as necessary to prompt their peers to be inclusive. It is important to teach peers to ask children with autism to play during recess. Children can include each other by taking turns pushing each other on the swing, going down a slide together, or playing Follow the Leader. Feeling included leads to motivation, and motivation leads to socialization.
Observe so you can continue to build on interests
Playground culture is always changing, and it is essential to teach a child with autism to change with it. At the beginning of the year, kids are feeling one another out and trying out new things. Within a matter of months, children will start to play games like foursquare, tetherball, sports on the field, or pretend play on the play structure.
Observe every few months and see who and/or what your child is naturally drawn to. See what peers they gravitate to and see what those peers are playing at recess. In a one on one setting, teach the concepts of foursquare or pretend play (this usually involves chase with some good vs. evil incorporated into it) so your child can relate to his/her peers in a social setting.
Who your child gravitates to on the playground represents the beginning of friendships because he/she wants to engage with peers who share common interests with him/her. What your child plays on the playground is also a great way to help identify extracurricular activities your child might be interested in, such as drama (pretend play) or sports.
Play is essential to social skills development and is instrumental in helping children understand their social world. When children come together and play, they form a peer culture that is uniquely their own. Through play, children are forced to navigate their social world independently and develop their interpersonal skills and social knowledge.
Over time children will begin to form friendships by identifying themselves with the peers they interact with, as well as discover what they like playing based on what they enjoy doing and what they are good at doing.
This article was featured in Issue 104 –Transition Strategies For Kids With Autism