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Fun and Games: How ABA Empowers Play Skills in 3 Steps

Play skills are important for a variety of reasons.  Children learn best through play because play makes learning fun and teaches problem solving skills.  Play skills expand social interactions and reduce challenging behavior by providing children with alternative enjoyable activities to fill their day.  All play involves exploring, being creative and having fun.  There should be no objective posed from the outside (yeah, I mean you).  It’s a child-driven activity.

This will not be another post about teaching “play scripts” or other types of rigid, structured play routines. The purpose of play is to explore and have fun. I said it before, but it’s worth repeating because so many professionals attempt to teach autistic children to play like other children.

Understanding the Stages of Play

Play skills typically develop in a somewhat sequential order. There are 6 stages of play that children go through as they grow:

  • Unoccupied Play
  • Solitary Play
  • Spectator or Onlooker Play
  • Parallel Play
  • Associative Play
  • Cooperative Play

Unoccupied play begins to develop in infancy and involves simple play through movement.  This type of play helps children understand their place in the world around them.  A child jumping and spinning is engaged in unoccupied play.  She is moving her body and exploring how it feels.

The next stage also begins at birth and usually develops until the child is about 2 years old.  Children involved in solitary play can engage in play with objects but have not developed an interest in including others in their play.

Onlooker play usually develops around 2 years of age.  The child will watch others play but still doesn’t play with them.

Many autistic children struggle to develop play skills beyond the first few stages of play without a little help.  Parallel play occurs when the child plays next to her peers engaged I the same activity but doesn’t play with her peers.

Associative play occurs when the child begins interacting with her peers, but these interactions are still pretty limited.  

The final stage of play is cooperative play where children work together toward a shared goal.  

AgePlay StageDescription
Birth to 3 MonthsUnoccupied PlayBabies play through movement of body and are learning how their body moves.
Birth to 2 YearsSolitary PlayChild plays alone and isn’t yet interested in playing with others.
2 YearsSpectator/OnlookerChild watches others play, but doesn’t play with them.
2+ YearsParallel PlayChild plays alongside others, but doesn’t play with them.
3-4 YearsAssociative PlayChild begins interacting with other children but interaction is limited.
4+ YearsCooperative PlayChild plays with other children and is interested in both the other children and the activity.

3 Steps to Teaching Play Skills

Before you can begin to teach play skills you must identify how the child currently plays.  Your goal here is to discover what she finds enjoyable. Answer the following questions:

  • What are some of the things she likes to do? 
  • How does she engage with toys, objects or other people? 
  • What type of play does she engage in most often? 
  • What are her favorite items or objects? 

Answering these questions will help guide you in expanding her play. When teaching play skills, you should follow the child’s lead, not try to change the way she plays.

Rather than thinking about teaching play skills, focus more on gradually expanding on the play she already engages in.  Remember that play should be fun for her so teaching or expanding play should also be fun for her, and you.  Always ensure you have the child’s assent when expanding play skills.

Follow these steps for helping a child develop play skills: 

  1. Join
  2. Imitate
  3. Expand


First, join the child in play.  Position yourself so that the child can easily make eye contact or look at you if she chooses by sitting slightly in front or across from her.  Have your own toys that are similar or the same as the toys she’s playing with and just join in what she is doing without making her share with you. 

Model different ways to play with the toys she likes.  Try being unexpected or funny.  Try putting the toy on your head and letting it fall off.  If she likes touch, try running the toy up her arm or down her back. If she doesn’t play with toys, just join in whatever she does to occupy her time.  If she spends her time pacing and scripting her favorite TV show, find a way to join her in doing that.  Learn some lines from the TV show so you can become part of the script.  Avoid interrupting her if you can.  Instead, just try to fill in pauses that come up so you don’t frustrate her.


Once the child accepts you joining in her play, start to imitate the things she does.  Jump when she jumps.  If she spins the wheels of a car, spin the wheels of a car with her.  Help her see value in engaging in play with you.  Many children enjoy this type of interaction. 

If you notice the child move away or shut down when you do this, back off.  Imitate small actions she makes and see if she gradually becomes more accepting of you imitating her play.  Allow her to control and direct play.  It might go against your instinct to hold off on teaching but for many children this step creates joy in play which is the whole point of play.


Very gradually work to expand the play she enjoys.  Include items or objects of special interest when adding new elements to play.  If she loves numbers, count blocks as you stack them.  If she’s all about flags, make balls out of PlayDoh and stick flags in the balls then turn a fan on and watch the flags blow.  If she’s totally into plungers, use clean plungers as a hat or a microphone. 

This step takes a lot of creativity and patience but also produces the results you’ve been waiting to see.  Include her special interests in as many different activities as she will tolerate without overwhelming her or detracting from her enjoyment of those interests.  

Remember the goals of teaching the child play skills.  You want to help her explore the world around her, spend time engaged in enjoyable activities and learn through those activities.  The goal is not to teach a rigid, structured play routine. 

Be flexible and creative.  Avoid placing your values on her play.  If you don’t enjoy crushing leaves and watching the pieces float in the wind but she does, recognize that she’s acting as a young meteorologist.  Encourage play and exploration even when it doesn’t look like how you played when you were young.

Example of Teaching Play Skills

You’re working with a 3-year-old girl, Amanda, who loves to play with toy animals by lining them up. Here’s what it might look like when you follow these 3 steps for expanding play skills:

1. Join: You join in her play by gathering your own animals and lining them up near Amanda as she plays. You watch for her reaction to you joining in her play, looking for signs of assent. If she shows signs of assent by turning toward you or watching you, continue to join in her play. If she indicates that she doesn’t like you joining her play (assent withdrawal) by swiping your toys or moving away, shift further away from her and possibly line up different toys. Until she begins to show signs of assent.

2. Imitate: Watch Amanda as she plays with her animals. If she gets down low to look directly at them, imitate her by getting down low. If she moves the animals into a different formation, move your animals. If she turns her animals upside down, turn yours upside down. As with the first step, look for signs of assent and assent withdrawal and adjust your behavior accordingly.

3. Expand: Gradually try to draw Amanda’s attention to your play by being unexpected or silly. Maybe spin the animals or place them on your head and let them fall off. Build a zoo to house your animals or put them in the back of a truck and push them down a ramp. Incorporate other toys or play with them in different ways. If Amanda is likely to enjoy sensory play, add the animals to a small bucket of water, water beads, or hide them in PlayDoh.

The key to expanding play skills effectively is to help the child discover new and interesting ways to play with some of her favorite things. There is not a “right” way to play. Make this fun and exciting for your learners.

Ready for more help and support? Check out the Dojo at the Master ABA Academy! Our members get access to courses, downloadable resources and weekly Office Hours where they can get answers to their questions.

Ethics Related to Teaching Play Skills

The table below presents some important ethical considerations when teaching self-management strategies. The table includes specific action steps to help you ensure you practice in an ethical way.

Ethical ConcernDescriptionAction Steps
IndividualizationAutistic children have unique needs and preferences. Failure to individualize play interventions may lead to ineffective outcomes and potentially reinforce stereotypes or biases.Conduct thorough assessments to understand each child’s strengths, interests, and challenges. Tailor play interventions to meet individual needs and preferences. Regularly review and adjust the approach based on the child’s progress and feedback.
Autonomy and ConsentAutistic children have the right to participate voluntarily in play interventions. Failing to obtain informed consent or respect their choices may undermine their autonomy.Obtain informed consent from the child’s caregivers or legal representatives. Respect the child’s choices during play activities and ensure they have the option to opt-out or modify activities as needed. Encourage communication and incorporate the child’s preferences into the play sessions.
Avoiding Coercion and ControlUsing overly directive approaches in teaching play skills may lead to coercion or undue influence, undermining the child’s independence and self-determination.Utilize child-led play strategies, allowing the child to initiate and guide the play activities. Avoid imposing specific play scripts or behaviors on the child. Focus on promoting intrinsic motivation and creating a positive, engaging play environment.
Social and Cultural ConsiderationsPlay skills should be taught in a culturally sensitive manner, considering the child’s social and cultural background to avoid reinforcing stereotypes or disregarding cultural norms.Collaborate with the child’s family to understand their cultural practices and preferences related to play. Use play materials, themes, and activities that are inclusive and reflect diverse cultures and backgrounds. Be mindful of potential biases in play interactions and promote positive social interactions that respect individual differences.
Privacy and ConfidentialityPlay sessions may involve interactions in private settings or discussions about personal experiences. Ensuring privacy and maintaining confidentiality is crucial.Establish clear guidelines for maintaining privacy and confidentiality during play sessions. Obtain consent from caregivers for any video or audio recording of play interactions. Store sensitive information securely and ensure it is only accessible to authorized individuals involved in the child’s intervention team.
Avoiding Harm and DistressSome play interventions may inadvertently cause distress or harm to the child if not carefully planned and implemented.Monitor the child’s emotional and behavioral responses during play sessions. Be responsive to signs of distress or discomfort and adjust the play activities accordingly. Use positive reinforcement and praise to promote a supportive and safe play environment. Avoid using aggressive or aversive strategies that may lead to harm or distress.
Generalization of SkillsTeaching play skills should extend beyond structured sessions to promote generalization to real-life settings.Incorporate opportunities for play practice in various natural environments and social contexts. Encourage caregivers, educators, and peers to engage in play interactions that reinforce the skills learned during intervention sessions. Continuously assess and support the child’s ability to apply play skills across different settings and with different playmates.
Transparent and Collaborative CommunicationOpen communication with caregivers, educators, and the child is vital to ensure ethical practice in teaching play skills.Establish regular communication channels with caregivers to share progress, goals, and challenges related to play interventions. Collaborate with educators and other professionals to align play strategies with the child’s broader educational and therapeutic goals. Involve the child in discussions and decisions related to their play interventions whenever appropriate.
Avoiding Tokenistic ApproachesEngaging in play skills solely to meet externally imposed goals without considering the child’s genuine enjoyment and meaningful participation can be tokenistic.Prioritize the child’s intrinsic motivation and interests in play activities. Acknowledge and celebrate the child’s individual progress and achievements rather than focusing solely on predetermined goals. Ensure that play activities are meaningful, enjoyable, and aligned with the child’s developmental stage and interests.
Evaluation of Play Interventions’ EffectivenessEthical practice requires ongoing evaluation of play interventions to ensure their effectiveness and appropriateness.Regularly assess the child’s progress in play skills and adjust the intervention strategies based on data-driven decision-making. Involve the child and their caregivers in the evaluation process to gather feedback on the usefulness and impact of play interventions. Continuously seek professional development and stay informed about evidence-based practices in teaching play skills to autistic children.

Research Related to Teaching Play Skills

Below is a table summarizing research articles related to teaching self-management strategies. The table includes important action steps to help you put these ideas into practice.

TitleSummaryAction Steps
Developmental benefits of play for childrenThis article explores the developmental benefits of play for children. It discusses how play contributes to cognitive, social, emotional, and physical development in children. The research highlights the importance of play in fostering creativity, problem-solving, and communication skills, as well as enhancing overall well-being.Encourage children to engage in different types of play, such as imaginative play, physical play, and cooperative play, to promote well-rounded development. Support the creation of safe and stimulating play environments that allow children to explore and learn through play. Foster opportunities for social play with peers to enhance social skills and cooperation.
Increasing play skills in children with autism spectrum disorder via peer-mediated matrix trainingThis article focuses on using peer-mediated matrix training to improve play skills in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The study demonstrates that involving peers in play interventions can be effective in enhancing play abilities in children with ASD.Implement peer-mediated play interventions in educational and social settings to facilitate interactions between children with ASD and their neurotypical peers. Train peers on how to effectively engage and support children with ASD during play activities. Monitor progress and adjust interventions as needed to optimize play skill development.
Teaching play skills to young children with autismThis article presents strategies for teaching play skills to young children with autism. It emphasizes the importance of incorporating individualized, structured, and meaningful play interventions. The research highlights the effectiveness of using visuals and modeling to teach play skills to children with autism.Use visuals, video modeling, and other visual aids to support play skill teaching. Develop individualized play intervention plans based on each child’s specific strengths and challenges. Provide consistent and structured play opportunities to reinforce and generalize learned skills.
Pretending to play or playing to pretend: The case of autismThis article examines pretend play in children with autism and its implications. It explores how children with autism may have difficulties with imaginative play and pretend play behaviors. The research discusses the importance of addressing these challenges to support overall development.Implement interventions focused on promoting pretend play skills in children with autism. Use techniques like modeling, prompting, and reinforcement to encourage engagement in pretend play activities. Create a supportive and non-judgmental environment to foster comfort and willingness to explore imaginative play.
A comparison of video modeling and pivotal response training to teach pretend play skills to children with autism spectrum disorderThis article compares the effectiveness of video modeling and pivotal response training in teaching pretend play skills to children with ASD. The study demonstrates that both interventions can be beneficial in enhancing pretend play abilities in children with autism.Consider using video modeling and pivotal response training in play interventions for children with ASD. Tailor the approach based on the child’s preferences and learning style. Use a combination of these strategies to maximize the effectiveness of play skill teaching.
Using video modeling to teach pretend play to children with autismThis article investigates the use of video modeling as an intervention to teach pretend play to children with autism. The research shows that video modeling can be a successful method for promoting play skills in this population.Create video models that depict various pretend play scenarios, and use them as teaching tools for children with autism. Encourage children to imitate the behaviors and actions shown in the videos. Provide positive reinforcement and support during play sessions to boost confidence and skill development.
A comparison of modeling, prompting, and a multi-component intervention for teaching play skills to children with developmental disabilitiesThis article compares different play interventions for children with developmental disabilities, including modeling, prompting, and multi-component approaches. The study finds that a multi-component intervention yields the most significant improvements in play skills for these children.Consider implementing multi-component interventions that combine various play teaching strategies. Assess the individual needs and abilities of each child to tailor the intervention accordingly. Involve parents, teachers, and peers in the intervention to create a supportive and consistent learning environment.
Exploring social stages of play through eye to I© intervention modelThis article explores the social stages of play and introduces the “eye to I©” intervention model. The model focuses on enhancing social play skills in children. It emphasizes the importance of eye contact and reciprocal interactions during play to foster social development.Apply the “eye to I©” intervention model in play interventions for children, particularly those who may have challenges with social play. Encourage eye contact and teach reciprocal interactions during play activities. Provide opportunities for children to practice these skills in structured and unstructured play settings.
The acquisition and generalization of joint attention and symbolic play skills in young children with autismThis article examines joint attention and symbolic play skills in young children with autism. The research emphasizes the significance of these skills for language development and social interactions. It discusses interventions to support the acquisition and generalization of these skills in children with autism.Integrate joint attention and symbolic play training into play-based interventions for young children with autism. Use naturalistic and play-based teaching methods to encourage generalization of these skills to various contexts. Collaborate with parents and educators to reinforce these skills in daily routines and activities.

References and Related Reading

Barnett, L. A. (1990). Developmental benefits of play for children. Journal of leisure Research22(2), 138-153.

Hatzenbuhler, E. G., Molteni, J. D., & Axe, J. B. (2019). Increasing play skills in children with autism spectrum disorder via peer-mediated matrix training. Education and Treatment of Children42(3), 295-320.

Jung, S., & Sainato, D. M. (2013). Teaching play skills to young children with autism. Journal of Intellectual and Developmental Disability38(1), 74-90.

Kasari, C., Chang, Y. C., & Patterson, S. (2013). Pretending to play or playing to pretend: The case of autism. American Journal of Play6(1), 124.

Lydon, H., Healy, O., & Leader, G. (2011). A comparison of video modeling and pivotal response training to teach pretend play skills to children with autism spectrum disorder. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders5(2), 872-884.

MacDonald, R., Clark, M., Garrigan, E., & Vangala, M. (2005). Using video modeling to teach pretend play to children with autism. Behavioral Interventions20(4), 225-238.

Quigley, J., Griffith, A. K., & Kates-McElrath, K. (2018). A comparison of modeling, prompting, and a multi-component intervention for teaching play skills to children with developmental disabilities. Behavior analysis in practice11, 315-326.

Schuchert, S. A., Khattar, S., Tekkar, P., Rathour, A., Dawar, S., & Gupta, P. (2023). Exploring social stages of play through eye to I© intervention model. Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 13591045231177477.

Wong, C. S., Kasari, C., Freeman, S., & Paparella, T. (2007). The acquisition and generalization of joint attention and symbolic play skills in young children with autism. Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities32(2), 101-109.

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