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Teaching Play and Leisure Skills to Students with Autism

Teaching Play and Leisure Skills to Students with Autism

Play is a wondrous thing that each of us has enjoyed from an early age. Whether it was playing pretend house during preschool, or playing board games with friends, it has kept us entertained for endless hours growing up and into adulthood! Play might look a little different from individual-to-individual, but it is something we all actively seek and engage in after work or on a long weekend.

This concept goes the same for all of our students! Whether it is in the classroom, or at home, or even on the go, play is what keeps them entertained and provides wonderful learning opportunities. You could write 8/2 = ? on a small whiteboard and hand it to your student or you could have two empty buckets with eight pretend cookies on the table (or real for extra fun!) and have the student separate the cookies into the buckets to determine the answer. Which teaching style do you think the student would prefer? Most children would love to sort cookies (and of course eat them!) to learn division! Play isn’t created in one day though - it is learned just like everything else, through time and patience.

Play skills are learned like building a house. You have to start with your foundation, build the beams, and add in the walls before you can complete the interior. During preschool years, most students might be learning to engage in symbolic and sociodramatic play (think pretending a banana is a phone or playing house), but this is not every student. Some might still be at the basic level of learning how to functionally play with a toy as it is intended. This is seen in many of our students with autism. Those play skills sometimes take longer to learn, and more structure. So how do you teach a student these skills so they can have fun, be entertained, and gain essential life skills (e.g., socializing, academics, movements)? You have to break it down for yourself so you can break it down for your student! Take the time to follow these steps and you’ll get there:


  1. Develop a relationship (rapport) with your student
  2. Gain instructional control
  3. Teach play step-by-step
  4. Generalize play skills




Think back to all the times you have asked someone to play or hang out. That someone was probably an individual you knew well and enjoyed being around. That relationship exists because you and another individual took the time to get to know each other. You learned their favorite interests, what they can and cannot do, and how they feel about different things. This process is called, “rapport building,” and is the foundation of any relationship. This is essential to have with your student because it opens up a wide variety of opportunities to interact and trust one another. I know I am much more willing to engage with someone I know and take direction from someone I can trust! If you want to teach your student play skills, you should consider how you want to develop that relationship to build rapport!

First, you have to be aware of how you present yourself to your student and just be a part of their environment. I know I am personally more likely to start talking to someone after I have seen them around several times and I noticed (from a distance) that they seem friendly! You could do this by simply sitting near them and playing with unused toys. Not only is this a foundational type of play (i.e., parallel - playing with similar toys, but not sharing them), but it presents an opportunity for your student to see that you also engage in play or enjoy similar items as them. When there are shared interests, they might be more likely to engage with you or listen to what you have to say.

But how long do you do this before you start interacting more with your student? Well, that depends on who your student is! Every individual is different in how long it takes for them to open up to the idea of interacting with others. A student who is more extroverted might immediately offer you their preferred toys after a few minutes, while a student who is more introverted might not even look towards you after 30 minutes. The key is to have patience and watch your student for cues that indicate they are comfortable in your environment. Look for nonverbal and verbal communication from them - do they laugh or giggle while playing, are they staying in the same area as you, or do they make comments or talk about their play? Or even start to imitate the way you are playing! These are great signs that your student is comfortable!

When you see those cues, it can be an indicator that your student is ready for you to start engaging more within the kingdom of play! Remember, the child should be in control of their play, but you can start showing interest in what they are specifically doing. You can take the time to comment on what you see with statements such as, “I like that blue block on top of that red block,” or, “the ball is spinning a lot!” You may not get a response back and that is okay because the point of commenting is to show interest in what they are playing with and highlight key aspects of play skills. When you want to start bringing their attention to what you are talking about, you can point to the toys to draw students’ attention to those toys. They may not look at it, but they could be listening which is a step in the right direction. Bringing both of your attention to the same item is called “joint attention” and can further strengthen the relationship between yourself and your student!




There is an important step between developing rapport with your student and teaching play, and that is gaining instructional control! We have all learned from teachers because they have told us that their role is to teach us new information or skills. While that may not be your only role if you are a guardian or parent, you still need to teach your student or child that teaching is one of the many hats you wear. This can also be applied in educational settings when you are first teaching your student what to expect from you.

Start by making that area you and your student have been playing in special! This is partially addressed when you develop rapport there, but you can enhance that by making that area specifically for play. You can have specific preferred toys out in that area when you are around, make sure the toys stay in the designated area and make a schedule of when you go to the area together to play with these preferred toys together. This might look like having a schedule where at 4:00 PM most days, you and your student get out their favorite toy and play for the next 30 minutes. When time is up, you clean up the toys (or teach them to clean up!), and then they can move on to other activities. The purpose is to show that you can control what is in your students’ environment and you can have fun together. It does not have to be a strict or rigid schedule, but routines are great for students with autism so they know what to expect.




You are probably thinking to yourself, “I bought this awesome toy, it makes cool sounds, it’s bright and colorful, how come my student (or child) won’t play with it?!” It is possible that they do want to play with it, but it is more likely that either they do not have the ability to focus for a long period of time or they simply do not know how to engage with the toy. Increasing focus and attention to toys is not something learned overnight, especially for a student with autism. It’s like trying to lose weight, a slow and steady process. You have to remember it is ok if at the beginning the student can only focus for a few seconds. Though, it is important to start with a baseline. Use a timer and see how long they engage with that toy before you start teaching. An increase from 5 seconds to 30 seconds is significant, but you may not notice this increase without having a baseline. Remember to check every so often how long your student is engaging with the toy so you can see the progress!

Now how do you teach to play with the toy? It is important to break down the play into steps and then teach each step. Maybe you bought your student a really cool tea party set. It has little play cups, saucers, tea kettle, cookies, and the kettle pretends to boil when it's ready, all these great fun ways to play with the toy! But your student picks up a cup and throws it or sees the cookie and tries to take a bite and then moves on to a different toy. That is ok! Playing pretend is a difficult skill, especially if the student still prefers parallel play. So at this stage, the first step is to break down the play and determine what you want to teach your student. Here is an example of possible steps:

  1. Putting the saucer on the table
  2. Putting the cup on the saucer
  3. Picking up the kettle
  4. Pouring the kettle into a cup
  5. Putting the kettle down
  6. Picking up the cup
  7. Drinking from the cup
  8. Putting the cup back down

This is just the beginning of endless possibilities, with this toy. You may want to teach the student to put a stuffed animal in a chair and have the animal drink from the cup or teach the student to bring the kettle to a play or real sink and pretend to fill the kettle. You can break down the steps as needed for each student. When teaching each step, a good technique to use is forward chaining. In forward chaining, you prompt the student to complete the first step and then you do the rest of the steps. Once the student is able to complete the step independently, then you prompt the next step and so on, until the student can complete all the steps independently. Other types of chaining methods include backward and total task, but for play, forward chaining is typically the best option. It is also important to provide reinforcement when the student completes a step (prompted or independently), to increase the likelihood that the student will continue engaging with the toy. Keep in mind it is only reinforcement if it increases the behavior! If the student continues to need prompting, you probably need a different preferred item for reinforcement.




At this point you’ve learned why play is important, how to build rapport with your student, setting up the environment for success, and teaching the steps of playing. But now what? Time to generalize those skills! It is great that your student is playing with you, but will those new skills transfer to home (or vice versa, we want those skills at home to transfer to school too), and will your student play with a new friend or a substitute teacher? These are very important steps to the teaching process.

Generalization happens in four steps. You initially taught your student that when you ask, “Where is the ball”, they go and get it, but if you were to say “Show me the ball” or “Go find the ball”, would they be able to comply? Changing the way you present the task is the first step of teaching generalization.

The next step is changing the materials. When this step is mastered, the student will understand there are many different types of balls or many toys that can be red. These first two steps are usually learned much quicker than the last two steps.

This brings us to step three! This is when you introduce the skill in a new environment. When the student can roll the ball back and forth with you on the floor in the classroom, now you see if they will apply the skill in the gym or outside on the playground.

Lastly, and the hardest skill, is generalizing to new people: teaching the student to roll the ball with familiar and unfamiliar peers. There will be a day that you will be absent, yes I know teachers are magicians and never get sick! But you will have a sub at least once! And your student will need to be able to apply these awesome new play skills with the substitute teacher. And to all you parents, this is a great time to introduce a sibling into the play, or a grandparent, or even a babysitter!


We hope these steps will help your little (or not so little ones) increase their play skills, but most importantly just remember to have fun and PLAY!!!



Rachel Upp, B.A., received her undergraduate degree in Child Life from the University of Akron in 2018 and is currently pursuing her Master’s degree in Applied Behavior Analysis from Ball State University. Since 2015, she has provided emotional and behavioral support to children from infancy to 21 years of age in varying environments – the school, home, and hospital. Currently, she is a Behavior Specialist at Monarch Center for Autism where she provides behavioral support to students in the Monarch Transitional Education Program.

Judy Borgen, M.Ed., BCBA/COBA received her undergraduate degree in Psychology from U.C. Davis and her Master’s degree from Arizona State University in Curriculum and Instruction in Applied Behavior Analysis. She has been working with individuals with developmental disabilities for 16 years in the United States, Canada, and Israel. These experiences were predominantly as an in-home ABA therapist, camp instructor, teacher, and as a Behavior Intervention Implementor (BII) through LAUSD. Currently, she is a Behavior Analyst at Monarch Center for Autism.




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