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Teaching “play” that functions as Play

NBC Admin - Sunday, December 23, 2018

For our #dobetter theme in December, we focused on developing reinforcers and play skills better. The recording for this webinar and all of our #dobetter webinars can be accessed here for free! In the webinar, we discussed the difference between play and leisure skills and shared programs that we typically incorporate with learners to help build true play skills. Because this is an area that is not discussed often, we decided to dive in deeper on this concept of teaching “play” that truly functions as play. First, we will define play and then we will look at how to develop programming for clients based on their current play repertoire. For video examples and program examples, check out the webinar!

What is Play?

The dictionary defines play as a verb that means “to engage in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than serious or practical purpose”. When we look at programming for learners diagnosed with autism or other developmental disabilities who have skill deficits relating to “play”, we often see attempts to teach “appropriate play”. What is “appropriate play”? It simply means, the same types of activities that peers and the rest of that culture engage in with the same materials.

Within “typical” development, there are certain phases of play that tend to occur. Young babies often mouth items and explore them visually or with their hands and feet, rarely engaging with the item based on its intended purpose. Cause and effect play tends to occur next, which consists of manipulating toys (or anything really) and observing the effect that occurs. This is why so many toys for 6 months to 1 year olds involve lights and sounds and easy to push buttons or spontaneous activity that occurs from simply approaching the toy. As infants turn into toddlers, we start to see more functional play where items are used for their intended purposes such as pushing cars down ramps, building with blocks, putting puzzle pieces into puzzles, etc. Then, children engage in pretend play, which has many steps! We discuss this in a little bit more detail in the webinar from this month.

If the learners we serve do not engage in the activities described above and as they become teenagers and adults do not engage in the same type of play as their peers, does this truly mean they are lacking play skills? Or does it just mean that they are lacking skills to engage in the same patterns of responding and behaviors with toys and other materials as their peers? If the definition of play is simply “the spontaneous of activity of children” or “to engage in activity for enjoyment”, surely the learners we serve engage in activities throughout their day that would meet that definition and could therefore be called “play”. The issue is not that our clients lack play skills, the issue is that we are too narrow-minded to recognize their play behaviors. Just because lining up toys, watching the wheels of a car spin, viewing the same clip of a video over and over and repeating the lines, etc are not behaviors I or some other children would engage in for enjoyment, doesn’t mean that this isn’t play. To identify play skills, we need to ask ourselves, “is this person enjoying what he/she is doing?” “is this activity spontaneous?” as opposed to “does this responding LOOK the same as the responding of a same age peer”.

Now, this isn’t to say that teaching learners how to engage with toys, books, and other leisure activities is not an important skill to teach. It is a very important skill to teach to help individuals participate in the community and to structure one’s day. However, we can’t just teach the topography of play behaviors, meaning we teach a learner how to manipulate and engage with toys or other materials in the same way as their peers. If we truly aim to build PLAY skills, we need to make sure the programming we are designing meets the definition of play and is spontaneous and enjoyable.

During the webinar, we looked at some video examples of play vs not play. Just because a child is engaging with toys in the same way as his peers, does not mean that play is occurring. If the child is enjoying the activity, then it is play. If the child is not enjoying the activity, then it technically is not play, and that is Ok, but it is an important distinction to be made!

But, WHY? Understanding what activities truly function as play for the learner you are serving, is what will help you develop the best programs to help expand play skills. If you merely go through the motions and implement programs with the word “play” in them, without considering whether the learner is truly, functionally, playing, the learner will not benefit as greatly. It is also important to focus on this to make sure we don’t over attend to building “appropriate” responding at the cost of a client having access to true play. If a client engages in a wide array of activities that meet the definition of play discussed above, and we spend all of our time squashing those activities and trying to force the client to engage in “play” activities in the same way as her peers, we are doing a disservice to our clients and essentially removing access to enjoyment from their lives. If we conceptualize play based on the definition of play and the function it serves, we can ensure we are balancing access to true play with teaching how to engage with materials to participate in the community. If done well, as we are working on this, the “appropriate play” we are teaching may very well become enjoyable, and function as play!

Practical Application
In our webinar for this month, we shared programming examples relating to 3 different phases of play. To further conceptualize this, we created the table below. This table can be used to expand play behavior while maintaining the actual function of play. This table focuses solely on building play for the individual not on peer play or social skills.

*Click here to see a clearer view of this table
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Spotlight on Early Intervention Resources

NBC Admin - Tuesday, May 01, 2018

Spotlight on Early Intervention Resources

This month for the #dobetter movement, we focused on early intervention and how to intervene early better. We started the month with a video review of a typically developing 2 year old interacting with his mom with during intervention styles. A voice over explaining that video can be found on our YouTube page

Our webinar for this month focused on topics not covered in behavior analytic graduate programs relating to early intervention and typical development. We discussed the importance of focusing on the social components for autism and making sure skills are broken down far enough. This webinar will be available on our website by June of 2018.

If you would like to watch it for free in the meantime, check out our Facebook page where a post with the link can be found!

For our blog this month, we are discussing resources related to early intervention that all behavior analysts should be familiar with. There are many helpful websites and books and also decision trees that can be used when working with such a young population. It is our duty as behavior analysts not only to become experts in the science of behavior analysis but also the literature and resources related to the populations we serve.

Book recommendations

The following books are must haves if you are providing early intervention:
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ABA Myth: ABA is Not Fun!

- Saturday, February 06, 2010
One of the largest critiques of ABA is that the intervention is not fun. It is rote, boring, repetitive, etc. I once had a parent tell me prior to starting the intervention that her parents were nervous about doing ABA because they heard it was like bringing in a drill sergeant and she didn't want that for her son. I have often wondered why so many people think ABA is not fun, especially when I have read so many articles, seen so many sessions, and talked to so many behavior analysts about working off the child's motivation and having fun during sessions. For this blog I am going to explore some of the reasons why this myth exists, explain why the myth is false, and then provide some resources for making sessions fun.  Read More