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Play to Learn: Teaching Social and Communication Skills with Play

"Children of all ages love to play, and it gives them opportunities to explore the world, interact with others, express and control emotions, develop their symbolic and problem-solving abilities, and practice emerging skills. Research shows the links between play and foundational capacities such as memory, self-regulation, oral language abilities, social skills, and success in school."

- NAEYC (National Association for the Education of Young Children)

As a teacher, I’ve always believed in the importance of unstructured play for children. In the autism intervention programs I’ve worked in, we’ve often tried to “teach” play skills to children by modeling “typical” play, showing videos of “traditional” play, or prompting and reinforcing the children to do specific play behaviors (such as playing with certain sets of toys in certain ways).

While I certainly understand the aim of these goals, I want to make an argument that having some unstructured, child-directed play can be as good for our kids with autism as it is for other children.

In some online training I recently attended, “play” was defined as having the following components:

  • Play is fun for the children.

  • Play is intrinsically motivated. Children engage in the play activities because they inherently enjoy the activity.

  • Play is chosen by the child in a spontaneous way.

  • Children are actively engaged during play (physically and/or mentally).

When we “follow the child’s lead,” letting them choose play activities (even if they’re not typical play activities), we can find opportunities to build social relationships and make learning meaningful for our kids/students.

I’m going to share a brief overview of two play-based strategies that I often use and provide links to resources where you can learn more.

Natural Reinforcement

In this strategy, we’re using the ABA definition of reinforcement, where we provide the child a “reward” for giving a correct answer, doing a positive behavior, etc. Often, the reward might be something completely unrelated to what we’re teaching, such as giving a child a sticker for successfully saying the multiplication tables. There's nothing wrong with this, and it is a strategy I sometimes use.

When we use natural reinforcement, we can embed naturally occurring rewards into play activities (and a child’s daily routines).

As an example, if we’re wanting to teach a child colors, and a child enjoys playing with cars, we could teach him or her to say the color of each toy car (one at a time) give the child the car to play with when he or she correctly says the color (natural reinforcer). This differs from “arbitrary” reinforcement, which might be giving the child a sticker (or other unrelated reward) for correctly labeling the color on a flashcard.

Here’s another example of an activity using sort of natural reinforcement for telling time:

To learn more about natural reinforcement, I would recommend these resources:

I don't love the title of this book, but it's amazing!


The next strategy that I wanted to share more fully captures the unstructured and child-directed characteristics of play listed at the beginning of this post. Joining refers to participating alongside a child’s play or stimming behaviors. We use our own materials, so we do the same activity as the child without necessarily directly interacting with the child. As an example, if a child is stacking blocks, we would also get a set of blocks, sit a few feet away from the child, and stack our own blocks, while focusing on enjoying the activity and finding the beauty of the activity (why the child enjoys it so much). This is my own definition, and it may not be endorsed by the folks who developed this strategy. According to Raun Kaufman, “When we join our children, we participate in their ism (‘stims’) with deep interest and acceptance – without trying to change or redirect it.” The purpose of this strategy is to build rapport and a social relationship with the children around a common interest.

There's more to the strategy than this brief overview, so I would recommend additional reading or training. To learn more about this strategy, please consult these resources:

Sources Cited in this Post:

Tinkergarten Leader Training

Please note that neither of these individuals or groups necessarily endorse this post and they are not affiliated with this post in any way.

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