Teaching Play Skills
Teaching play skills and cooperation in group activities
• Social play skills can take years to develop as there are many variables involved – ability is
influenced by a child’s current level of social skills, language skills, social interest, play skills and
cognition / processing abilities.
• It is best to start with a trusted adult (or older pupil who can easily take direction and serve as a
good role model) in a one to one situation to ‘practice’ – this provides the child with more
predictable behaviour than having to read the back and forth, give and take social cues of a
similarly aged child. Defined activities such as barrier games or lego therapy (enlist the help of a
speech therapist in sourcing these if appropriate), linked to a child’s special interests (e.g. a
dinosaur theme), planned for a short session (and linked to favoured rewards if necessary) are
great starting points. Or you can work on skills which it would be helpful for the child to master in
a safe environment before they are to be exposed to them in a group situation (eg ‘pass the
parcel’) – but, again, try and build from something the child is familiar with and motivated by (e.g.
use dinosaur wrapping paper).
• Start where the child is. So physically get on their level – if they are lying on the floor, join them!
(bearing in mind positioning yourself alongside them may be less intimidating for some than face
on; others will need face on to get much needed visual cues). Copy what they are doing – if they
are not playing functionally with a toy, follow their lead (e.g. watching the wheels spinning on a
car for sensory input rather than ‘pretend’ play of ‘driving’ it along the carpet); also emulate any
sounds they are making. The idea is to start in ‘their’ world to gain their comfort, trust and
attention before you start putting any ‘demands’ on them from ‘your’ world and your way of doing
• Once the student is able to respond to, and cooperate with, the instructions of an adult and
undertake some two way interaction with them, activities with another child can be introduced.
• With peer play, choose a play partner that the student has already shown an interest in and,
again, one who is cooperative and easily directed. Choose a simple and short, familiar activity,
bringing in the child’s special interests and strengths (e.g. an art activity for someone creative).
To maximise the chances of success, prepare the child ahead of time with: what he can expect to
happen; what will be expected of him (and practice any skills in advance if necessary); the likely
duration; how the activity will end / what will happen next; and also discussing how he can
respond to any potential stressors (such as not getting to go first, not getting his preferred choice
of game every time, sharing and turn taking – but try and manage the situation so not all the
stressors occur! e.g. if working on turn taking, let him choose the game, as some control will
make it easier for him to manage his response to less choice elsewhere).
The Unity – Inclusion Training
Teaching play skills and cooperation in group activities
• Break down and follow the developmental steps of play (parallel play before cooperative play;
functional play before imaginative play). Also, follow the lead of the child in terms of social
interest in others / progress in skills before making the big leap from partner play to group play.
• Never force group peer play if it causes discomfort to the child / makes it difficult for them to self
regulate – any discomfort will increase the likelihood of the play session failing and, if the child
starts to feel overwhelmed, this could escalate to adverse or even destructive behaviour.
• Even if a student just wants to observe other children playing – this is positive social interest and
an opportunity to expand their understanding. Sit alongside them and narrate what is going on,
as your running commentary can help the child better understand the social cues of reciprocal
• You may need to actively teach appropriate ways of initiating interaction, for example if a child
snatches toys or hits others to get their attention. Use visual / social stories; modelling of
expected behaviour; reinforcement and praise (appropriate to the child’s preferred style – e.g. big
high fives and attention versus less ‘put on the spot’ star charts).
• Make sure to balance the student’s efforts in cooperating and compromising in shared play with
some ‘free choice’ activity. It is also important to end on a high – if a child’s usual attention to
task is, say, thirty minutes, schedule the activity for twenty minutes. Be mindful the whole time of
their energy levels (the ‘drain’ on their ‘social battery’, combined with potential sensory issues
and potentially higher stress levels due to the demands of an unpredictable play partner and the
change to their typical routine). If the child is starting to show signs of overwhelm before the
twenty minutes is up, step in and wrap up before any issue arises so the student can experience
their well deserved measure of success.
Learning to relate to others is very taxing for someone on the autism spectrum due to: the very
conscious effort needed to decipher complex and confusing social rules and the meaning of both
verbal and non verbal language; the unpredictability of any social exchange; and difficulties in
recognising and predicting the thoughts, feelings and perspectives of other people. Therefore:
• follow their pace – if they are not ready, do not force them
• start in their comfort zone and build gradually
• try and let play unfold naturally, but always observe the interactions closely so you can anticipate
any potential flashpoints and subtly redirect before the student becomes dysregulated.
• engage them with their special interests, play to their strengths to give them a chance to shine in
front of their peers and, most importantly – make it fun!!