Teaching Play Skills


  • Discuss why teaching play skills is important
  • Review different types of play and give examples
  • Discuss strategies for teaching play skills
  • Discuss strategies for generalizing and expanding play skills
  • Review general guidelines for successful play activities


Why is teaching play skills important?

Engaging in play helps develop critical skills such as fundamental social and cognitive skills such as conversation, perspective taking, imagination and problem solving, as well as fine and gross motor abilities. Individuals with ASD often display and absence of appropriate play skills.

How might these deficits present?

  • May not show an interest in independent play toys (quiet play such as coloring, toy cars, etc. and instead may engage in restricted behaviors or stereotypical behaviors, spinning, etc.)
  • Alternately, the learner may engage in play items in an inappropriate or restricted manner (spinning wheels on toy cars, repetitive viewing of scenes from movies or books)
  • Failure to engage in varied and spontaneous make-believe or social imitative play
  • Deficient play skills can have a negative impact on development, i.e., significant inability to interact with same-age peers, inability to appropriately occupy alone and leisure time (which can lead to restricted interests, repetitive behaviors and inappropriate behaviors), and hinder development across a broad range of skills that impact all domains important for later life stages (perspective taking, creativity, problem solving, etc.)

What play skills should we teach?

According to the Brigance Diagnostic Inventory of Early Development

  • Social Anticipatory Play (0.7 yrs.) e.g., peek-a-boo
  • Cause and Effect Play (1.0 yrs) e.g., push a button and something pops up toy
  • Imitative Play (1.0-2.0 yrs) e.g., pretend phone, pretend kitchen, pretend tool belt
  • Parallel Play (2.0-2.6 yrs) i.e., playing along side another child but not necessarily together
  • Group Play (2.6-3.0 yrs) e.g., duck-duck goose, musical chairs
  • Cooperative Play (3.0 yrs)
  • Turn Taking (3.6 yrs)

However, what is going to be taught will be determined by the BCBA and dependent upon the age and current ability of the individual learner. The BCBA will develop the Play Therapy Lesson and target particular skills for play. However, as an RBT it’s important to understand as well what might be an appropriate target for a given learner.

Types of Play

  1. Beginning Play
    • Typically talking about sensorimotor activities, manipulative toys, and task completion activities (touching, feeling, and experimenting with different toys and different textures or simple task completion, i.e., shape sorter, ring stacker)
    • Initial focus is on increasing repertoire of toys and activities that they engage in
    • Can move them towards sustained independent play
  2. Functional Pretend Play
    • Using realistic toy objects for their intended function (e.g., cooking, carpentry, music, etc.)
  3. Symbolic Play
    • Transforming the properties of one object to another for the purposes of pretend play e.g., using a banana for a phone, a blanket for a fort, a sheet for a cape, play dough is “food item”.
    • This builds on functional pretend play skills, “life-like” objects become symbolic
  4. Constructive Play
    • Manipulate materials to create something symbolic for the purposes of pretend play e.g., sand castles, leggo’s, clay, art materials, etc.
    • This is one of the most common forms of play
  5. Imaginary Play
    • Using language and gestures to conceiving of objects, physical properties, or situations that are not present for the purpose of pretend play (hunting for the moon in the marsh, tea party, pretend camping… etc)
    • Replaces objects from constructive play with language and gestures
  6. Socio-dramatic Play
    • Carrying out the role, language, and behavior of others or animal (e.g. parent, fire fighter, dog, wolf, etc) for purposes of pretend play
  7. Interactive Play
    • Involves play between two or more people
    • At a young age, children typically engage with others  in basic social games (peek-a-boo or chase)
    • As children gain skills, they begin to engage in more advanced play and locomotor activities
  8. Tracking Independent Play

Play programs are not mutually exclusive! They can overlap!

General Play Skill Teaching Progression

While strategies do differ this is just one general progression that can be used in teaching play skills

  1. Imitation – getting the learner to imitate the play skill that you are trying to teach and then,
  2. Receptive Commands – getting the learner to follow instructions, than move on to
  3. Object/Toy Appropriate Behaviors – using toys appropriately without needing that receptive instruction, and then moving on to
  4. Vocalization (sound effects) – making the beep beep or vroom vroom noise pushing a car around and then again moving towards,
  5. Expressive/Narrative (tacting) – essentially story telling with toys
  6. Multi-step Chains/Themes – Developing a full story… toy car goes to gas station for gas then to mechanic to get fixed… doll goes to bed, wakes up has breakfast, goes to school/work… and this moves to
  7. Initiating and Requesting (manding) – Initiating play activities or request to play in a certain location, or with another person

Interactive Play Skill Progression

While strategies do differ this is just one typical progression

  • Imitative
    • Observes and appropriately imitates the activities of peers
    • Non-vocal imitation, eye contact needed, possibly following instructions (if needed to prompt) are likely needed prerequisites
  • Parallel
    • Plays in proximity to peers using similar toys, without engaging in or otherwise attempting to influence peers play
    • Basically near each other, playing similar things, but not interacting in any way
    • This is characteristic of beginning play observers in preschool
  • Associative
    • Begins to engage vocally and non vocally with peers while engaging in similar or identical activities
    • This includes borrowing, and lending toys from one another, but continuing to play as each wishes
    • Basically here, individuals continue to play independently, but there starts to be more interaction
  • Joining & Initiating
    • Approaches peers and either joins a play activity in progress or invites peers to play
  • Cooperative
    • Plays with one or more peers for the purpose of producing a material product, playing formal games, or engaging in dramatic activity with a shared goal, for example:
      • Building a sand castle
      • Building a fort
      • Playing see-saw

How do we Teach Learners to Play

For many individuals with ASD, learning and using appropriate play skills can be difficult work.

  • Play may not always be naturally enjoyable for the learner!
  • The RBT should always strive to make each play activity as reinforcing and enjoyable as possible

Teaching play skills has two main goals:

Goal 1: Teach new play skills and activities (expand the learners repertoire)

Goal 2: Generalize and expand mastered play skills across all environments

Prompting in Play Skills

  • Just like any other new skill on acquisition, it is important to implement appropriate prompting and fading procedures
  • Set up a prompt hierarchy for each skill being taught to ensure success and to facilitate the fading process
  • Work with the BCBA to develop the most effective prompt hierarchy
  • Prompt hierarchy will vary depending upon the learner and the skill being taught as each learner will have strengths and deficits in different areas
  • An example of a prompt fading hierarchy may look like this:

Physical/Model + Vocal Instruction
Model + (no vocal)
Gesture + (no vocal)
No model, no vocal

Other Strategies for Teaching Play Skills

  • Once individual skills are mastered, they can be chained together to form more complex play activities. Either forward or backward chaining
  • Visual strategies can also be very effective for teaching play
    • Visual activity schedules can be used to teach a variety of play skills
      • Independent play- completing several play activities placed in sequential play bins or play stations
      • Functional pretend play- using pictures to depict different activities to engage in
      • Pretend play- using a drawing, cartoon or picture scenario to plan out the actions and dialogue in advance, then act it out
    • Video Modeling
      • The learner watches a video clip showing a restaurant sequence
      • The RBT and learner immediately follow up with acting out the sequence
      • Multiple video clips can be made to show different ways to play the same activity which shows them a variety of options which is closer to real life
      • Video priming can be faded and different actions can be mixed to increase flexibility
    • A visual/play choice board can also initiate spontaneous play
    • Such alternative options for teaching play will be instructed by the BCBA

Positive Reinforcment

  • Set up reinforcement hierarchy for systematically rewarding new play skills
  • Use highly motivating reinforcement to pair with play activity; this positive pairing will help to make the activity more motivating on its own
  • Use primary reinforcers if necessary, but fade them out as soon as possible, because ultimately we want the play itself to be the reward for playing!

Generalizing and Expanding Mastered Play Skills

  • Mastered play skills must be practiced and expanded upon in a more natural environment
  • During this time the RBT/Therapist should focus on:
    • Generalization of play activities
    • Language promotion and generalization of mastered communication skills

Generalization of Play Skills

  • Across stimuli: The learner practices building a tower with blocks, than lego bricks, linking logs, and building cubes
  • Across Sds: The learner practices acting out a pirate sequence when given a variety of instructions (i.e., “let’s be pirates”, “come on let’s make a pirate ship”)
  • Across presentation: the learner plays a matching game using several different versions of the game, including one introduced at school
  • Across people: the learner plays “mechanic” with the therapist, sibling, parent, and peer from school, etc.
  • Across environment: play occurs in different locations, playroom, living room, home, outside, playground, neighbors, school, etc.
  • Across time: the learner retains the ability to play soccer which was learned at home during therapy to playing it during recess at school the following week

Language Promotion and Generalization of Mastered Communication Skills

Creating obstacles

  1. Sabotage/hiding of objects
  2. Stopping a situation in progress
  3. Giving an unclear instruction
  4. Hoarding toys
  5. Making a mistake

The above are all common ways that RBTs can create obstacles for children to expand upon mastered play skills to further increase generalization of those play skills and further promote language skills as each of these contrived obstacles promotes the child to engage in communication

Other options for language promotion and generalization of mastered communication skills is to:

  1. Give choices. It increases motivation and allows them to select the activities that they are going to participate in
  2. Using multiple cues
  3. Modeling appropriate language
  4. Asking questions that relate to previously learned concepts

Guidelines for Successful Play Activities

  • Make highly motivating and fun
  • Have toys out ready for use
  • Haver several ideas in mind for each play scenario
  • Link the activity to a highly preferred activity
  • Use the Premark Principle (Use the First/Then philosophy: First we’re going to play something that is new or a little more challenging, but then we are immediately going to follow up with something that you love
  • Adjust time spent on the task to each child
  • Use choices to motivate
  • Model appropriate language
  • Do not always use the informational “no” (this is play so it’s different!)
  • Use highly preferred topics from books, movies and cartoons to generate ideas for play
  • Focus on popular ideas and play themes from school and with peers
  • Incorporate siblings and peers into play when ready

Learn More…

Introduction to Preference Assessments

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