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Teaching Social Skills and Navigating the Playground

May 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 a time to “let some energy out.”

However, for children with autism, recess can be challenging. It’s often loud, unpredictable, and lacks structure. These things can make them uncomfortable or overwhelmed, making it hard to join in and have fun like other kids. Because of that, it’s important to work on their social skills to overcome these challenges.

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Why is recess challenging for autistic children?

Play is not just a break from academics. It’s a crucial tool for social skill development. It helps children understand their social world and 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.

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.

The importance of play for social skill development

When teaching social skills to children with autism, professionals often avoid recess and teach social skills in 1:1 environments or small group settings. They use 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 on their shoulder and ask them to play,” or “Look into a friend’s eyes and ask them a question.”

If anyone has watched children play on the playground, they know 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. Play is how children socialize and how social skills are developed, and it happens at recess.

To teach children 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.

Techniques for teaching play skills to autistic children

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

Children playing at therapy https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/teaching-social-skills-navigation/

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

1. 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 and what the kids are talking about. 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, note how they play it and their language. It is important for you to take lots of notes during these observations so you can see the different play themes happening.

2. 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? Our job is 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 they will have knowledge about what is going on and make it easier for you to facilitate their play. 

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 them the foundations of imaginary play.

3. 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. Observe and prompt your child to stay engaged.

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How does recess help with social skills?

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.

This article was featured in Issue 103 – Supporting Emotional Needs


Q: Can you use social stories for recess?

A: Social stories can be a helpful tool for preparing children with autism for recess. Using simple language and visuals, social stories can explain what to expect during recess, such as the noise, activities, and social interactions. They can also provide strategies for coping with any challenges that may arise, helping children feel more confident and prepared to navigate the playground environment.

Q: Who can benefit from a playground social story?

A: Children with autism or other developmental differences who struggle with the unpredictability and social aspects of playgrounds can benefit from a playground social story. It gives them structure and guidance to feel more comfortable and confident during this time.

Q: What types of play activities are effective for teaching social skills?

A: Activities that involve cooperative play, role-playing, turn-taking games, and imaginative play are particularly beneficial for teaching social skills. These activities encourage communication, teamwork, and problem-solving.


Harris, K., Rosinski, P., Wood-Nartker, J. et al. Developing Inclusive Playgrounds That Welcome All Children—Including Those with Autism. Rev J Autism Dev Disord (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40489-022-00345-3 

Chester, M., Richdale, A.L. & McGillivray, J. Group-Based Social Skills Training with Play for Children on the Autism Spectrum. J Autism Dev Disord 49, 2231–2242 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-019-03892-7 

O’Keeffe, C., McNally, S. A Systematic Review of Play-Based Interventions Targeting the Social Communication Skills of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder in Educational Contexts. Rev J Autism Dev Disord 10, 51–81 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40489-021-00286-3

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