“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood,” Mr. (Fred) Rogers.
At Great Explorations Children’s Museum, we recognize the importance of meaningful play for all children. This month, in celebration of Autism Acceptance Month, a movement designed to raise awareness, promote acceptance, and celebrate each other’s differences, we spoke with local pediatric psychologist Dr. Audra Walsh, who shared her expertise on the power of play for children of all abilities.
Play provides so many opportunities for teachable moments. Playtime is when kids are often the most amenable to learning— social skills, self-care, experimentation of cause and effect, and coping skills are just some of the important learning that can happen during play.
Kids with Autism benefit from explicit teaching of play and interaction skills because these skills don’t come as readily through the usual passive social learning avenues. During play we have the ability to focus on all domains of development (language, motor, adaptive independence, cognitive, social-emotional). For example, play is a wonderful time for teaching and practicing turn taking. As kids get older, parents have the opportunity to model important developing social interaction skills such as cooperation. Through pretend play, using dolls/superheroes parents can model cooperation, empathy, and sportsmanship. Parents, caregivers, and teachers have opportunities to teach and reinforce important developmental skills on a daily basis through play and also create a very enjoyable part of the daily routine.
Dr. Audra Walsh shares the following tips for making the most of playtime with your child:
- Join the play/exploration your child is already drawn to on their own. Find ways to join in and begin building the social engagement and reciprocity.
- Provide labeled praise. For example, “I love how you’re being so gentle with the (stuffed) puppy” or “I love how you’re sharing the crayons with brother.”
- Describe their play like a sportscaster would narrate a game. Enthusiastically describe your child’s play. For example, “You’re spreading the pepperoni on the pizza. Now you’re placing it in the (toy) oven.”
- Model coping skills. In other words, think aloud about your own play. Naturally describe feelings (both the pleasurable and uncomfortable feelings) that come up during play and model coping skills when appropriate. For example, “I’m happy when I play blocks with you.” Or “My tower tipped over. I feel frustrated. When I feel frustrated sometimes it helps me to take a break and some deep breaths. After my break I’m going to try again!”
- Incorporate anticipation, unexpected outcomes, and silliness into the play to build more opportunities for joint attention. For example, instead making the car race again and again in the same way, have the car really rev up and say ‘the fastest car ever is about to goooooo!’, mouth open, wait for their eyes, then go for it and share a great moment together with eye contact. This fun and engaging adult attention teaches many skills including joint attention, eye contact, anticipation, and novel ways of play. Build on that and have fun!