There are two categories of play activities: structured and unstructured. But what is the difference, and which is more beneficial for children with special needs like autism?
Unstructured play is any activity designated as “free play” or “free time.” This category of play is completely child-led, without instruction from an adult. Unstructured play also does not involve any strategy or learning aspect. For example, children singing a song out loud to see who can sing the loudest would be unstructured play.
Structured play involves instruction-led activities by teachers, therapists, parents, and more. This category of play uses specific instructions and steps to achieve a clear learning objective and is sometimes called “play with a purpose.”
Compared to the unstructured play example above, children in structured play might be instructed to sing a song together about colors. This activity has an overall objective of learning different colors.
Benefits of structured and unstructured play
Unstructured play benefits include:
● Fostering creativity and imagination
● Providing both freedom and control with play activities
● Children learning about themselves (likes and dislikes)
● Helping develop problem-solving skills
● Children feeling less pressure when mistakes are made
● Encouraging social skills like listening, problem-solving with peers, and teamwork
Structured play benefits include:
● Building coordination and strength
● Increasing fine motor skills
● Helping a child discover new activities
● Learning new tasks through instructions
● Helping a child develop turn-taking and self-regulation skills
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Now that you know the benefits of unstructured and structured play, which is better for children with autism? For any child, the debate between unstructured and structured play is easy: it is all about balance. There needs to be an equal amount of both structured and unstructured play activities because both help a child’s physical, social, and emotional development.
Children with autism may struggle with participating in structured play activities. However, that does not mean they can’t. It may simply take more time for an autistic child to understand instructions and participate with others compared to a neurotypical child.
Structured play teaches children with autism play skills like turn-taking, sharing, and social interaction—all of which children with ASD can struggle with. It also gives autistic children a structured activity with clear rules to reduce stress in an uncertain social situation. But how do you make structured play work for a child with autism? Although you do not need to change everything about the structured play activity to accommodate a special needs child, there are some things to keep in mind.
Tips for organizing structured play for children with autism
● Remember, children with autism are often visual learners. They may need pictures of tasks so they can better understand what is asked of them. If you want to engage a child in a structured play activity, why not try a visual schedule? A visual schedule with a picture card for each step will outline the rules of an activity to make it easier to understand. Once the child completes each task, remove the picture card from sight so the child knows the step is completed
● Follow the child’s interests to keep him/her engaged in structured play. For example, if a child enjoys trains, complete puzzles or sorting games that incorporate trains
● Play off the child’s strengths. If he/she is skilled at counting, try incorporating numbers and counting into an activity
● Keep directions simple and eliminate unnecessary talking
● Choose structured play activities your child can do. Many structured play activities depend upon the child’s cognitive development and his/her ability to maintain focus during structured play
● Help the child engage in appropriate play by redirecting inappropriate behavior. If the child is banging blocks together, redirect the behavior to an appropriate one, such as showing him/her how to stack the blocks
While a child with ASD may struggle to stay focused for structured play, small adjustments to an activity will help the child better understand what is expected of him/her. Structured play teaches children clear boundaries, rules, and essential social skills for interacting with peers. But unstructured play allows a child with autism to explore his/her environment in a creative way to learn more about himself/herself.
Both structured and unstructured play are beneficial for children with autism, so it is important to strike a balance between the two.
This article was featured in Issue 116 – Enhancing Communication Skills