Play-Based Learning for Preschool Autistic Children

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We’ve been hearing a lot more about play-based learning in the last few years. But, how does that work for our young autistic children who require structure in the classroom? We are going to explore combining structure and predictable routines with play-based learning for young autistic children!

What is Play-Based Learning?

Play based learning is a method of education that uses play as the primary means for children to learn and develop skills. It allows children to explore, experiment, and engage in activities that are enjoyable and meaningful to them, while also promoting their cognitive, social, and emotional development. 

In the context of autistic children, play-based learning is important for helping them develop play skills and other important skills that grow from everyday play experiences. It involves observing and expanding a child’s play and allowing them to engage in play in a way that is comfortable for them while also working on expanding their play skills.

It’s easy to envision child-led play-based learning in a 1:1 type setting, but how do we do this in a busy preschool classroom? If you are a teacher running a special education classroom, you know what happens if you have “free play”. It descends into chaos. Our students need structure, and unstructured time for the class as a whole is not going to end well. So, how can you provide both structure and play-based learning at the same time? I have 5 tips that will help you feel confident in your ability to merge the two.

Tip #1: Determine the Child’s Level of Play

If we aren’t sure what stage of play each child is in, it can be impossible to determine the appropriate play-based activities for them. My go-to resources for this are from The Hanen Centre. The Hanen Centre was founded more than 45 years ago. It is a Canadian non-profit organization with a global reach. Their mission is to enable parents and professionals to transform their daily interactions with young children to build the best possible lifelong social, language, and literacy skills. Much of their work applies specifically to young autistic children.

They have a booklet series titled “Make Play Rock”. In this series, there are 3 booklets. The first one is titled “Plan For People Play” and it offers simple, research-based ideas for how parents and educators can build their autistic child’s social interaction skills during “people games”.  There are interaction-focused games that provide an ideal context for learning. The second booklet is titled “Take Out The Toys” and gives parents and educators the tools to help autistic children develop early toy play skills. The third booklet is titled “Put Pretending Into Your Child’s Play” and offers practical, research-based guidance for building children’s pretend play skills skills that are closely linked with the development of language, social, and emotional skills.

These booklets are short, and easy to read and implement and will give you a deeper understanding of play and autism, as well as ideas to put into action right away.

Play Stages Checklist

I’ve developed a brand new checklist, which can serve as a companion to collecting information about which stage of play each of your students is in. Then, you can come up with goals for where you’d like them to go next when it comes to play. The checklist will be your framework, and the booklets will serve as your “how” and “what” to make it happen.

Go to for the free play checklist and a link to purchase all 3 booklets from The Hanen Centre.

First, take time to observe what each child likes and how they are currently playing with toys.  Use the checklist to write these things down.

Stages of Play

We want to make sure we are providing toys and activities that match the child’s current level of play.  

The first stage of toy play is the exploratory stage

The next stage of toy play is the functional stage

The third stage of toy play is pretend play

Our job is to meet them where they are and expand the activities they are doing in their current stage of play. Then, we can help nudge them forward toward the next stage of play.

Tip #2: Play-Based During Learning Time

Once we understand where each child is in their play journey…specifically which stage of play they are in, we can start joining them. This is where the structure in the classroom comes in.  Rather than joining them in a play area where there are a lot of toys and children, start out 1:1 during a structured learning time. This may look like a small table with an adult and child and clearly defined boundaries, such as a divider or shelving around the area. This reduces distractions and allows for better focus.

Have a couple of activities at the child’s level on the table so they have a choice. This is where our observation of the child starts.

At first, it is important to take time to observe and allow them to be comfortable with us there.  They are probably used to adults interrupting their play, talking too much, and taking over. So, don’t ask questions, stay quiet and observe.

Then, you can start to imitate what they do. 

It could be sounds, words, or actions. Narrate the play and describe what you see in single words or simple short phrases. Don’t direct the child and tell them what to do.

Be a copycat! Studies have shown that parents who imitate their child’s level of play will experience longer play sequences. This information can be brought into the learning environment too. Think about allowing your students to take the lead and then you imitate their version of play. This also allows us to build positive relationships with our students and children!

Then, with your own set of toys or characters, you can start to interact with the child. First by copying what they do, then doing some of your own actions. Keep in mind, you still are not directing them.

The idea behind this tip is to start play-based learning in a structured setting vs in a larger free-play setting. This will allow you to understand what the next steps are going to be.

Tip #3: Incorporate Their Interests

Incorporating the child’s interests is key. This is because the definition of play is that it is pleasurable and intrinsically motivated. Play is joyful. Take the time to observe what the child loves to play with. A piece of this is watching for special interests. Special interests may be toy cars, trains, balls, or an interest in a specific character, like Cocomelon.

Understanding these interests will allow us to provide and tailor play-based activities around the child’s interests to motivate and engage them. 

This will help to actively engage the child in play because we are using materials, toys, and activities that they are actually motivated to use and explore. Many times, our best-planned activities that are based on OUR AGENDA are going to flop. When we consider and include the child’s agenda…that’s when we win. And they win. Don’t give up. Keep trying and then expanding. If the child loves trains, but they dump or throw them, create a more structured visual activity where the child pushes the train and watches it disappear into a hole. You can make this out of a shoe box! This is something you can start with and then expand their play by providing similar activities with trains or move to cars, buses and motorcycles.

Tip #4: Use Visual Supports For Play

If your child or student is in the functional stage of play and can do a couple of one step play actions on their own, using visual supports can help them expand on those. Again, you can start teaching these in a structured learning area, before the child begins to use them during free play.  

If the child is able to push a car on the floor, or enjoys watching the car go down a ramp, think of similar actions that would be a nice next step. We don’t want to overwhelm them with two step play actions until there are a lot of one step play actions in place. So, for the child who can push a car and place the car at the top of a ramp to watch it go down, you could expand their play by using visual supports and modeling for other toy car play actions. This could be crashing two cars together, pushing a car through a car wash, putting the car down the Tot Tube or cardboard paper towel roll, or push the car into a garage. Look at how many one step play actions you can use to nudge and expand the child’s functional play skills!

Then, there is the social aspect with peers. 

Let’s say you have a student who isn’t sharing yet during free play. Once again, pull this skill into a structured learning area and teach it in a setting that is less stressful.  

The special education teacher that I co-taught with for 10 years used a visual that said “I give you a toy, you give me a toy”. First, have two children sitting across from each other at a small table with the activity in between them. Let’s say it’ ‘s a car track with a bunch of cards. Then, use the “I give you a toy, you give me a toy” visual to start to teach sharing during this semi-structured activity. This visual has been so helpful when it comes to teaching kids the first step of sharing, which is a trade. Instead of one child taking the other child’s favorite toys, this allows some control to be placed in the child’s court. They can decide which toy car they will give the other child. The visual and this format creates a predictable routine that children learn over time. It’s highly effective and can eventually be used during free play once it’s become a routine that the child understands.

Another type of visual support that can be helpful is video modeling. You can create short videos showing different play actions, such as one step play actions with the toy cars. Kids love watching these and can often imitate a video before imitating another person. It doesn’t have to be fancy, a simple video you take on your phone or iPad will do. The same goes for the social interaction of sharing. Take a video of a trade. It could be two adults trading toy cars or two children.

Tip #5: Expand To Free Play With Peers

In order to expand these play skills into a free play environment with peers, we need to make sure we’ve spent enough time implementing steps 1-4.  

Then, make sure you have some of these specific activities in the play area, with the visual supports. Also, be sure to have the visual support for training in that area too. This is a team effort when it comes to using these visual supports in a free-play setting, so make sure to train your support staff in these concepts and have the visual accessible for all of you to grab and use at any moment.  

Generalizing these skills to a free play or larger group environment takes time and patience.  These areas are more stressful, which can make it more difficult for autistic children to access these newly learned skills. But, with predictable routines and consistency, progress will be made!

To listen to the podcast episode on this topic click here

If you use visual supports in your classroom or home, you are going to want to sign up for this free Visual Supports Starter Set ASAP! Click here to have one sent to your inbox. Also, be sure to read more about visual supports and how they can help autistic children here.

Visual supports starter set

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