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Teaching Social Skills and Navigating the Playground

January 24, 2024

Recess is often thought of as a break for both teachers and children. It is a time for teachers to take a breather, eat a snack, go to the bathroom, check emails, etc. As for children, recess is seen as a time for them to “let some energy out.”

Teaching Social Skills and Navigating the Playground

However, after spending ten years observing thousands of children play at various recesses at multiple schools, I have come to the conclusion that recess is the most important part of a child’s day.

Play is essential to social skill 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.

On the contrary, play skills for children with autism are vastly different from those of their typically developing peers. Recess can be an unsettling place for children with autism because of the lack of structure, the loud noises, and the unpredictability.

When teaching social skills to children with autism, professionals will often avoid recess and teach social skills in 1:1 environments or small group settings by teaching a “structured” curriculum their typically developing peers are not exposed to. I have observed many different social skill techniques being taught such as, “Tap a friend of his/her shoulder and ask him/her to play,” or “Look into a friend’s eyes and ask him/her a question.”

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If anyone has watched children play on the playground, he/she knows kids just play—there is no structure. They are not tapping each other on the shoulder or looking into each other’s eyes. Children just innately know how to play. Through play is how children socialize and how social skills are developed, and it happens at recess.

In order to teach children with autism social skills, it is important to teach them how to play. Play can be taught in 1:1 and group settings, but the ultimate goal must be to generalize those play skills on the playground at recess. Many professionals avoid teaching play because they themselves do not know how to play.

Play is not structured; it is spontaneous, loud, and requires a lot of thought and problem solving skills. However, after many years of research I have come up with three ways in which professionals and/or parents can begin to teach play to a child with autism in a 1:1 setting or small group.

These three techniques will help breakdown play skills in a structured way, in which a child with autism can learn to play at recess, relate with his/her peers, and have fun on the playground.

Observe Recess

Go outside and observe at least three to four recesses your child would be involved in. During this time, observe what the kids are playing, what are the kids talking about, and look for peer groups your child would be drawn to. For example, if your child doesn’t like to play sports you would not observe the kids out on the field playing soccer.

If you hear a group of kids talking about Star Wars and playing an imaginary Star Wars game your child might be interested in, take note of how they are playing the imaginary game and the language they are using. It is important for you to take lots of notes during these observations so you can see the different play themes happening at recess.

Expose, Expose, Expose

Expose your child to playground culture. Playground culture is much like pop culture in that you have to teach your kids about what is happening on the playground. For instance, if the kids are playing Star Wars on the playground and your child doesn’t know anything about Star Wars, how can you expect your kid to participate in the play? It is our job to educate our kids about play themes such as Star Wars, Minecraft, Frozen, etc.

Whatever the kids are playing is what you need to expose your child to so he/she will have knowledge about what is going on and make it easier for you to facilitate his/her play. There is so much on the internet you can show your child, like a quick video to introduce him/her to popular characters.

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Through my years of observation, I’ve found play themes tend toward good vs. evil and often involve some sort of chase or tag. If you teach your child those concepts you have given him/her the foundations of imaginary play.

Play Simple Structured Games on the Playground

Introduce your child to the playground by teaching simple structured games such as Tag, Simon Says, Red Rover, Red Light Green Light, Four Square, Relay Races, etc. in a small group. Then facilitate these structured games at recess with children in your child’s classroom. Children enjoy play facilitated by adults.

Begin to fade yourself out of the structured games and have children take turns facilitating the structured play. For example, when playing Simon Says, choose different peers to be Simon and have the peers begin to direct the play and you observe and prompt your child to stay engaged.

Play is very complex, especially when teaching children with autism how to do it. However, play is essential to social skills development. Without learning how to play, children with autism will not know how to socially relate to their peers and learn how to form meaningful relationships. By structuring up play, teaching structured games, and exposing your child to playground culture, you are giving your child the skills to begin to navigate the playground successfully.

Kids climbing and sliding on outdoor playground

This article was featured in Issue 103 – Supporting Emotional Needs

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