Parents and professionals implementing classroom programs, play groups, therapeutic social groups, and play dates should give careful attention to the selection of activities, play themes, and/or materials. Selection of activities and play materials should take into account the interests and passions of children and address individual challenges such as sensory reactivity/sensitivity, sensory preferences, motor planning, visual-spatial and other individual issues and needs. The following are tips and ideas for setting the stage
Individual interests and passions
An example of incorporating an interest/passion is matching a child who loves finding bugs in the backyard or on the school playground with a partner who also has this interest with whom she could share a magnifying glass and delight each time a new insect is sighted. Other activities the child might enjoy with a partner could include looking through nature guides or books with pictures of insect species and/or finding and cutting photos of insects from old nature magazines or on the Internet and pasting these into a “book” the children co-author.
Incorporation of interests into play activities should include the very specific interests of many children on the autism spectrum whether Disney characters, Thomas the Train, a particular video, letters of the alphabet, colors, etc. For example, the Disney character molds that are of special interest to one child could be provided along with the play dough and small rolling pins that are enjoyed by multiple children in a group. The molds could be exchanged among the children and for further fun children could animate and pretend together with the characters they cut out with the molds.
Individual differences and challenges
Children’s individual challenges should be considered in the selection of play materials and activities. For example, play sets that have many small figures and props that require a complex sequence of actions to enact pretend play could hamper the imaginary play of a child with motor planning issues. Instead allow the child’s imagination to unfold by offering him and his peers a couple of larger props that set the scene for a pretend theme such as piloting a spaceship, a visit to the zoo, operating a hair salon, or acting out a story or fairy tale of high interest to children in the group. Also be aware that some children with visual-spatial or fine motor challenges may become frustrated with traditional blocks or sets of construction toys. Some children with these challenges might do well working cooperatively with other children to build large structures (e.g., a “space station”, a “fort”) using large sturdy cardboard bricks or large hollow wood blocks.
Communication devices such as PECS, I-Pads, or other technologies used to support communication of individual children should be incorporated into ongoing activities and used to communicate with peers as well as adults. Other individual differences such as auditory processing, vision, hearing, and motor challenges should also be taken into consideration in selecting play materials and in arranging the play environment. Although beyond the scope of this posting, universal design principles and assistive technology and modifications of materials and equipment should be applied to increase accessibility of the environment and materials, active participation, and independence of all participants.
Sensory sensitivity/reactivity issues are critical to consider in arranging space and materials and deciding the number of children that will constitute a group. Children who are highly reactive to visual, auditory, and tactile stimulation and those with significant regulatory challenges will be better able to maintain a calm, regulated state in smaller groups and initially will benefit from participation with just one other child in simple activities with the adult monitoring for signs of dysregulation. Additional play partners should be added very gradually over a number of sessions with consideration given to the child’s improving capacity to co-regulate with playmates. Activities that offer proprioceptive input (what is often called “heavy work”) such as pulling a friend on a blanket or pulling them in a wagon can be helpful.
Children who tend toward under-reactivity and under-arousal may benefit from activities that help to energize them although this should be accomplished gradually, first matching the child’s rhythm and then building in intensity. Music, dancing, and rhythmical clapping games that build up gradually in intensity, for example, could be offered to children.
Environment, schedule, and/or rotation of activities
A well-organized, uncluttered play environment will help children focus and sustain attention and regulate emotions and arousal. In home settings avoid having all of the child’s toys available at once. Develop in advance a plan for the activities and materials to be offered and have only those play materials available. The plan should include a mix of different types of play activities and experiences including sensory, movement, and musical activities. Play and games that are more demanding on the child’s social, communication, and higher level thinking and problem solving capacities or that make demands on easily overstressed sensory or motor systems should be interspersed with less demanding and more relaxing activities. Although it’s important to be prepared with varied activities and materials, these should be offered flexibly and a shift to a different activity should be based on children’s interest and engagement, how much children are connecting with each other, and needs of individual children for up- or down-regulation.
In a classroom setting a mix of several different activities each with potential for social interaction can be offered simultaneously during a free choice period or during another block of time. Each activity should be led/facilitated by a staff member and children assisted to select and transition among the various activities as necessary. As discussed above a balance of activities should be offered based on children’s interests/passions, individual differences and challenges, and play/developmental needs.
Types of activities and examples
Listed below are several different activity categories with the potential to support social play and interaction and examples of each:
1. Single focus and proximity activities—these are high-interest activities that bring children into proximity with each other or promote a common focus on particular materials or an activity and increase the likelihood of joint attention. Examples include children facing each other in a rocking boat singing Row, Row the Boat; swinging together in a hammock; painting together on a very large sheet of craft paper; completing a large jigsaw puzzle together; playing together in a water table or bin with a few special, novel materials (e.g., water pumps, tubing and funnels, spray bottles, a siphon, etc.); playing together in a large appliance box; decorating a large appliance box; toy vehicles and roads and bridges; a simple train set with trains and tracks; looking at/reading a selection of high-interest books.
2. Sensory, movement, and musical activities—sand (or other interesting tactile materials) and water play; running under a water sprinkler; swinging together on a hammock; chasing games; dancing together with streamers or ribbons; rocking together in a rocking boat; playing with a small parachute; taking turns pulling each other in a wagon or wheelbarrow; following each other on trikes/riding toys; working together to keep a large beach ball in the air; clapping games; making music together with rhythm instruments.
3. Pretend play themes with reciprocal roles—many pretend play themes naturally incorporate reciprocal roles and thus can provide a rich context for social play and interaction including opportunities for simple pretend play for children at beginning levels of pretending. These include doctor/nurse-patient, waiter/waitress and customer, barber/beautician and customer, airplane pilot-passenger, store clerk-customer, birthday party, car wash, mechanic/customer, etc., etc. At a more sophisticated level, the possibilities for complex play scenarios are endless. Examples include veterinary office, museum (could be an extension of art or nature study activities), car wash, bakery, magic show, circus, camping, acting out favorite stories or videos, etc., etc.
4. Simple games and games with rules—games can be as simple as peek-a-boo, playing chase, keeping a large inflated ball in the air, hide and seek, fishing with a toy magnetic fishing pole and cut out fish with attached paper clips, follow the leader, treasure hunt, pillow fight, bean bag toss etc. More advanced games with rules require that children have some understanding of rules and can voluntarily submit to and maintain the rules although blind obedience to rules is not the goal and, in fact, this type of play can offer lots of opportunities to facilitate social problem solving and negotiation. Games with rules include all of the beginner (e.g., Candy Land, Chutes and Ladders) and classic board games, hopscotch, Mother may I, Four Square, kick the can, jump rope, marbles, jacks, and variations on tag, among others.
5. What interests children—as was discussed above, there are infinite possibilities for activities that can be shared by children that are based on particular interests of children whether those be numbers or letters of the alphabet, things that spin, components of toys or devices, videos or stories, Thomas the Train, Toy Story, a fairy tale, space travel, nature study, mathematics, magnets, etc., etc. The key to incorporating these interests into social groups or activities is to find ways that children can share the activity or interest and interact with each other. In the case of a child whose interest is in spinning objects, children could be provided with a box of objects some of which can be spun easily and others that can’t. Children could take turns showing each other the objects they found that could be spun. The child who is the “spinning” expert could be called on to help other children make their object spin. The focus on spinning might also be extended into other types of movement such as rolling with experiments involving rolling objects down different types of inclines including ramps that vary by steepness. The common interest of many young children in Thomas the Train can be parlayed into many activities including story books to look at together; train songs, games, and finger plays; pretend play involving trains and train travel; and construction play in which ramps to load cargo onto trains and train stations are constructed; as well as lots of novel ways to construct train tracks and move the trains on the tracks, including knocking over obstacles placed in the way.