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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

Hopefully this discussion on play, defining play, and how to truly build responding that functions as play. Most of the learners we serve would benefit from engaging in “appropriate play” behavior and we can work on teaching this just like we do any other skill but not at the cost of truly having access to PLAY. How you teach skills that are categorized as play will likely vary based on the ultimate goal of the programming. If the goal is to help the learner participate in the community and natural environment, programming might focus more on building the topography, meaning going through the motions and accessing reinforcement for demonstrating certain responses even though the learner may not actually enjoy the activity (they shouldn't be forced to do those though, their responding would just be neutral). If the goal is to help the learner broaden the activities that bring enjoyment and to experience enjoyment from engaging in activities similar to their peers or that are from someone else’s agenda, then more attention will need to be paid to the function, meaning focusing on whether or not the learner is enjoying the activity and placing a lot of planning and attention on using the learner’s interests as described in the table above. Don’t forget to check out our webinar for additional discussion on this distinction between what we call leisure skills vs play and a brief peek at some social skills resources that we use!


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