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What is Naturalistic ABA?

A picture of toys on a floor with the text, "What is Naturalistic ABA?"

One of the teaching approaches that I use the most is what I call “Play to Learn.” Whenever I can, I try to use fun activities or subjects that a child loves in order to teach language and academics. You can find lots of ways I do this on my blog. A more “formal” term for this play to learn approach is called “naturalistic ABA.” Naturalistic ABA is an approach that maintains principles of the science of ABA, but focuses on playing with the child in a natural way. The educator follows the child’s lead, observing the child to see what he or she is interested in and uses those interests to teach. Some other ideas used during naturalistic ABA include:

  • The educator places fun activities and objects into the environment, often in ways that will require adult assistance to access. As an example, an educator could place a favorite puzzle on the table, but hold most of the pieces. This way, it provides an opportunity to work on language, as the child can ask for each piece. As a caution, please be careful with putting objects of out a child’s reach unless the child is constantly supervised. Many of my students are great climbers and may try to reach the items on their own.

  • Teaching occurs during activities and with objects that are of high interest to the child.

  • Instruction can take place at a table/desk, the floor, outside, etc. It may be less structured with child movement and choice permitted (Paul & Fahim, 2016).

For more information about naturalistic ABA, I really like this book. I also manage a Facebook group and a Pinterest board for sharing ideas about using Naturalistic ABA, if you'd like to learn more!

Also, I'm starting a free online book group to discuss the ideas in this book, and would love for you to join if you're interested in learning more about this topic. The book group starts tomorrow (March 2, 2020), but we don't use the book much the first week, so there's still time to order the book and join us! You can find the group here (it's the same group linked in the previous paragraph):


Paul, R. & Fahim, D. (2016). Let’s talk: Navigating communication services and supports for your young child with autism. Baltimore, Maryland: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

Please note that I am not a Board Certified Behavior Analyst® (BCBA®) and I do not provide ABA services. I'm a certified special education teacher and some naturalistic ABA principles influence my teaching. This is a very brief overview of the Naturalistic ABA approach. Please consult with a Board Certified Behavior Analyst® (BCBA®) in order to start using this approach with your child or students.

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