Play and Development

According to the Oxford dictionary, the definition of play is “to engage in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose…to amuse oneself, entertain oneself, enjoy oneself, have fun, have a good time, relax, rest, be at leisure, occupy oneself, divert oneself, play games, frolic, frisk, gambol, romp, cavort, caper”. While this is factually correct, play is so much more than this.

Play provides children with the opportunity to learn, experience, investigate and interact with the environment. Play offers children opportunities to think, plan, create and do, and provides a vehicle for children to create meaning from the world around them. These play-based experiences encourage children to learn and practice a range of skills they need to support their development and learning.

Play at PlayConnect

For children with an ASD and ASD-like traits play (and particularly play in a social environment) can be challenging. The difficulties many of the children experience with communication, managing change, and social interactions can make many types of typical play problematic. As a result, children with ASD or ASD-like traits often avoid or fail to engage in play in regular or meaningful ways and miss out on learning opportunities that would allow them to better negotiate and understand the world around them.

Ironically, it is because of these difficulties that play, as a vehicle for social and developmental learning, is so vitally important for children with ASD and ASD like characteristics.

This is the fundamental reason for PlayConnect playgroups. PlayConnect sessions provide the opportunity for children with ASD to engage in appropriate and supported play, which allows opportunities for children to grow, develop, engage and shine.

The PlayConnect program provides families with the opportunity to learn through play in an environment that recognises and caters for the particular developmental needs of children with ASD in a safe, supportive and friendly environment that is beneficial and empowering.

In the remainder of the section we will spend some time looking at types of play, and individual play skills and preferences.

Types of Play

As the very broad definition of play outlined above would suggest, the term play encompasses a whole range of activities. For our purposes, it is perhaps useful to break the concept of play down into some specific types of play that may be provided in a PlayConnect setting.

In the table on the following page, we will identify some of these types of play, the key areas of development that each play type typically targets and provide some examples of skills that can be developed by this type of play activity. Using this snapshot as a guide, we will then explore each of these areas of play in more detail and provide you with some ideas for activities that may foster particular types of play.

Type of Play               Development                                       Examples of skill outcomes
  • Gross motor
  • Fine motor
  • Social & Emotional
  • Balance & Agility
  • Strength & Endurance
  • Hand/eye coordination
  • Self-regulation
  • Motivation
  • Fine motor Cognitive & Creative
  • Hand/eye coordination
  • Mathematical concepts
  • Perseverance
  • Divergent thinking
  • Problem Solving
  • Planning
  • Social & Emotional Language & Communication
  • Cognitive & Creative Self-help
  • Turn taking
  • Sharing
  • Empathy
  • Negotiating
  • Team work
  • Self-awareness
  • ·Impulse control
  • Language & Communication Cognitive & Creative Self-help
  • Sensory Integration
  • Information processing
  • Exploration of senses
  • Self-regulation
  • Curiosity
  • Scientific processes
Art & Craft
  • Cognitive & Creative Social & Emotional Fine Motor
  • Divergent Thinking
  • Innovation
  • Intuitiveness
  • Independence
  • Decision making
  • Resilience
  • Perseverance
  • Self-acceptance
  • Self-regulation
  • Cognitive & Creative Language Self-help
  • Problem solving
  • Working memory
  • Decision Making
  • Information processing
  • Object permanence
  • Cause & effect
  • Operations
  • Reasoning
  • Language & Communication Gross Motor Fine Motor
  • Social & Emotional
  • Cognitive & Creative
  • Sounds
  • Words
  • Symbols
  • Expression
  • Hand/eye coordination
  • Self-regulation
  • Grammar
  • Syntax
  • Phrases

Physical Play

Physical play essentially refers to activities that use physical movement in play. More specifically, physical play includes active play, like running, jumping, climbing and skipping.

This type of play essentially promotes physical development,includingbothfineandgrossmotor skills and supports the development of balance and agility, strength and endurance, and hand/ eye coordination. These sorts of activities can also support the development of social and emotional skills such as self-regulation, motivation, team- work, collaboration and turn-taking.

Whilst all children can benefit from engaging in physical play, including those with ASD and ASD- like characteristics seeking sensory input physical play has phenomenal benefits. Below are some ideas of physical play activities you may like to use at a PlayConnect group. Owing to the nature of physical play most of these will fit best into an outdoor environment.

  • Construct (or recruit the children to help construct) an obstacle course. Depending on the equipment you have available, this might include: walking along a low beam, or several beams varying in height and gradient; balancing along a ladder over the ground; climbing on padded play equipment; manoeuvring around cones or other markers; and/or jumping on a trampoline.
  • Provide bikes, trikes, scooters, ‘fire engines’, ‘cars’ or prams for the children to use. Play can either be free or structured, with a ‘race track’ for the children to navigate.
  • Use bean bags, balls or quoits for throwing practice. Again, this can be free play or part of a more structured activity where children must throw the bean bags over a line,or (if working on collaborative play) between children, or children and carers.
  • If your venue has swings provide children withaccesstothem,orotherswingingtype activities such as a hammock

When developing play activities for sensory needs children with ASD and ASD- like traits remember to take into account the skills and interests of the children in your group. Ensure the children within your group are able to do the activity, while still being challenged by it. Be flexible, and adapt the activity depending on the needs of the children.

Construction Play

Constructive play refers to play that requires children to manipulate things in their environment to create things. This type of play typically works on developing fine motor as well as cognitive and creative skills. This can include building hand/eye coordination, divergent thinking, understanding of mathematical and concrete concepts, as well as problem solving and motor planning skills. It can also work on social and emotional skills, such as perseverance and resilience.

Below are some ideas for construction play activities you may like to try:

  • Work with blocks. The ideas here are endless. Provide simple wooden blocks. Use Lego, Duplo or Mega Blocks. Encourage childrento build towers, or (if appropriate) more complex creations like cities, people, buildings, farms. Provide suggestions to support their imaginative play. If using blocks in a group context try a ‘who can build the tallest tower’ game or a turn taking ‘you have a go – I have a go’ activity.
  • If you have access to a sandpit, provide tools for children to build in and manipulate the sand. This might include buckets, spades, trucks and other typical sand play toys. It might also involve shells, sticks, pine cones and other items the children can use within their sand based constructive If you don’t have access to a sandpit, consider filling a tub with sand.
  • Develop a craft activity where the children build and decorate things with cardboard boxes. They might like to build a boat, or a plane. Make a robot or an alien. Again, take guidance from your group – if they need you to provide some clear direction to guide their play, pick a topic.
  • Provide miniature train tracks and trains for the childrento build a railway.

Imaginative Play

Imaginative play is essentially when children are using their imaginations. They are role-playing and acting out various experiences they may have had or that are of interest to them. This type of play is ideal to develop social and emotional competence, with opportunities to demonstrate empathy, to share, take turns, work collaboratively or in a team, and to negotiate. It also allows children to develop their language and communication skills, as well as cognitive, creative and self-help skills. Imaginative play is often particularly important for children with ASD or ASD-like traits, as many demonstrate delayed, unusual, or pretend play skills are absent.

Below are some ideas for imaginative play activities you may like to use at a PlayConnect group.

  • Play Dinosaurs. Have the children pretend to be dinosaurs, roaring at each other and looking for food. This is a good opportunity to integrate physical and imaginative play which can help sensory seekers to maintain focus and attention.
  • Play Dollhouse. Use a dollhouse and pretend that the dolls are going through their daily routine. Ask the children to tell you about what they do in the mornings and ask them to do the same with the dolls.
  • Play with dolls. Use some babies to facilitate a doll role play game. You may liketo use a pram, or a bed so the child can ‘take the baby for a walk’ or ‘get the baby ready for bed’. You may like to setup a washing station, where the children can give the babies a bath or wash their clothes.
  • Build a city. Engage the children in making a city out of blocks, and drive toy cars around the“city”.
  • Build a train track and create scenarios where the train must pick up and drop off people and supplies.
  • Make an animal hospital for stuffed animals and help fix them up when they get hurt. Provide bandages and make up some sick beds.
  • Play kitchen, café or restaurant. Use toy food and a play kitchen to cook and serve a meal. Have others order and eat the food.

Sensory Play

Sensory play refers to play activities that stimulate a child’s senses: touch, smell, taste, movement, balance, sight and hearing. This can include an incrediblybroadrangeofplayactivitiesthatcanbe used to support the development of self-help skills such as self-regulation and sensoryintegration.

It can also scaffold the development of cognitive and creative skills, like information processing, and the understanding of scientific processes and concrete concepts.

However, when working with children with ASD orASD-like traits it is important to understand the particular sensory needs of the children you are working with when developing play activities.

Below are some ideas for sensory play you may like to use within PlayConnect a group.

  • Squishy Use a tactile mediumto stimulate touch. There are so many to choosefrom:
    • Rubbery Goop
    • Gloopy Gloop
    • Slime
    • Sand Foam
    • Cloud Dough
    • Shaving Cream
    • Playdoughand
    • Plain sand.

We have included lots of recipes for these lovely “squeezy” mediums in the resources section of this guide. Each of them feel slightly different. They can all be coloured, or you can add glitter, or fragrance or texture to the mix to change the sensory experience.

These squishy, slimy mediums are fantastic touseontheirown,orcanprovideabasefor another activity. For example, you could go digging for dinosaurs. Put a whole heap of dinosaurs and associated bits and pieces into the squishy medium and make a game out of their recovery. This can be expanded to have the children act as mini-archaeologist digging up bones of an ancient time.

  • Paint Paint. Paint is a great sensory medium. It can be used to stimulate sight and touch. Activities with paint can be a straightforward paintbrush and easel free painting activity, or you can try finger or foot painting to increase the sensory impact. Encourage the children to mix the colours and try different brushes, stamps, and other materials to create differences in texture. Alternatively, paint’ the fence or outside walls with water and brushes.
  • Rice, pasta or grain. Rice or grains, either used on their own, in combination with other grains, or in conjunction with other toys, is a great and versatile sensory medium. There are lots of different things you can try with grains:
    • The grains and/or rice can be coloured, either a single colour or a combination of colours to increase visual impact. They can also be scented with herbs or oils.
    • They can be used in a sensory tub for children to run their finger, hands, arms and feet through. This can be simple, with only one grain, a combination of grains, or grains with other toys.
    • Rice of varying colours, or grains of different shapes, colours and textures can be used in a comparative activity. Children can be encouraged to feel and see the difference between the materials. These can be in cups or tubs or sealed in zip-lock bags the reduce mess.
  • Create sensory tubs or boxes. Put together an activity box or tub full of items relating to a particular theme. Encourage the children to see and feel the different objects in the box. This can be as simple or complex as you like. Sensory tubs might be based on any of the following: colours, numbers, letters, or shapes. Alternatively, you might like to focus on a particular concept (trains, dinosaurs, clouds, farms) or a well-known story. In either case, fill the tub with things related to your topic. Below are some examples:
    • Dedicate a sensory box to purple. You might include some purple rice, purple pompoms, any small purple toys, pieces of purple paper, purple buttons,possibly purple sequins. Anything you can find that suits the
    • Build a sensory box around the story of the three little pigs. You could use a base of plain sand or rice and add small pig toys, some twigs, clumps of mud, some straw, small rocks, pretend teeth, and a wolf You can ask the children what story the box reminds them of. They can tell you the story, or you can read it to them.
  • Musical play. Musical play is a great way to engage the auditory system.
  • Vestibular play. Vestibular play involves movement,balance,andspatialorientation. Activities within this type of sensory play might include the use of a hammock, or a spinningchair.
  • Water play. Water play can be used inmany different ways for sensory In most instances you will need a water table or something similar to work with, but without this you can use plastic containers, buckets or tubs. Experiment by adding a few drops of food colouring or make bubbles by adding a little dishwashing detergent. Use warm water for a soothing and calming experience. Examples of water play might include:
    • Creating a water table where kids can pour water into different shaped and sized containers
    • Bathing or wash dolls or large plastic animals with sponges
    • Freeze small toys into ice and encourage the children to dig them out or watch them melt
    • Freeze some water to make ‘iceboats’ and watch them melt during play
    • Add water beads or leaves to a water table and use sieves to scoop them up

Art and Craft

Art and craft quite simply refers to play that involveschildrenworkingonartprojectsorcraft activities. Art and craft play allows childrento develop their cognitive and creative skills, such as innovation, intuition and divergent thinking. Itcanalsobuildsocialandemotionalskills,such as self-expression, independence and self- acceptance. Depending on the activity, art and craft play activities also provide the opportunity to develop fine motorskills.

There are limitless art and craft activities you may like to use at a PlayConnect group. You can use different mediums, like paint, pencils, markers (scented or plain), clay or dough, stickers, pictures or crayons to shape activities. You can try painting, working with stencils, building model, collage, decorating templates, colouring or any number of different activities.

Cognitive Play

Quite simply put, cognitive play is ‘thinking play’. That is, play that draws on cause and effect, memory and problem solving, reasoning skills, object permanence and information processing.

Play of this type allows children to develop their cognitive and creative skills, as well as their capacity for language and self-help. Often play of this sort can be integrated into other forms of play. However, to facilitate cognitive play you may like to try: puzzles, treasure hunt type activities, identifying ‘same’ and ‘different’, matching games, ‘snap’, and other activities that work with patterns or cause and effect awareness.

Musical Play

Musical play is a great way of supporting children’s development. It allows children to build their communication and language skills, with the introduction and repetition of sounds, words, grammar and syntax. The use of musical instruments allows children to develop their fine and gross motor skills. But more than this, musical play builds children’s social and emotional, and self-help skills, including self-regulation and self-expression.

Musical play can be used in lots of different ways in the PlayConnect setting. This can include both unstructured activities, structured activities, and incidental music.

Some examples are below:

  • Unstructured activities: Providing children with musical instruments and inviting them to experiment is ideal. You can provide a singletypeofinstrument,forexamplesome drums,and have them experience with tempo and volume.You can provide a selection of instruments and encourage the children to compare the sounds they make.
  • Structured activities: Structured musical play would normally occur during an allocated ‘music time’ during a playgroup session. This time is dedicated to the children singing and/or playing instruments in a group setting. There are many ways to design this time, from allowing children to select songs they wish to sing, to providing tapping sticks and getting them to tap out a beat.
  • Incidental activities: Musical play can also be used incidentally across a playgroup session. This may include transition songs or sounds used to support transitions (we have included some examples of transition songs in this guide for your reference). Hello, welcome and goodbye songs are also a great way of including music in the program.

Supporting the Play Needs of children with ASD

Many children with ASD need more than just the opportunity to develop their play skills. They also need play support. The nature of the type of support will vary from child to child,dependent on their particular strengths, interests and challenges. However, we have put together some general considerations when developing play opportunities for children with ASD, and some suggestions of some supports and management strategies that may be useful.

Structure the Physical Environment Carefully

The way the playgroup space is set up at the beginning of a session will greatly influence the success of the group. It is important that the space is structured to cater for the needs of children with ASD and ASD-like traits. Specifically:

  • Declutter the room as much as possible
  • Set up specific areas for play activities and routines. Provide spaces that are distinct from each other for different types of play to assist the child in identifying and focusing on what to do in that space. Help children become familiar with the room and try not to change it often
  • Define activity areas by using shelves,rugs, tables, or low dividers. The physical layout of the room will identify the purpose of each space and provide children with easily-marked boundaries. Label shelves with pictures or a toy piece. This will show children and families where toys belong
  • Have a designated quiet area that reduces sensory stimulation. Some children with additional needs have a low threshold for noise and may benefit from having a quiet area to relax and getaway from the loud and busy playgroup environment. Siblings and parents can also benefit. We all need some quiet time sometimes. This might include: beanbag chairs, large overstuffed pillows and child-sized rocking chairs, or a small tent with pillows inside and heavy quilts.
  • Try to group quiet activities together (e.g., readingcentreandquietarea)whileleaving the more boisterous activities (like blocks and sensory play) in another area
  • Set up some play spaces to allow two or three children to play at a time to encourage parallel or collaborative play
  • Add texture to toys, tabletops, shelving, and cubby areas. Children with ASD or ASD characteristics may enjoy auditory and tactile stimulation. Include brightly coloured Some examples are bubble wrap and corrugated cardboard.
  • Include an auditory element. Attach bells or shakers on the side of toys,shaker waterbottles, and squeaky toys in the water table. This may support children to attend to activities
  • Include a visual schedule of the activities and routines of the session (e.g.,inside/outsideplay, music time, wash hands, morning tea, group time, hometime).

Choose Toys Thoughtfully

By playing with toys, children begin to explore and ask questions. Within the PlayConnect setting it is important to choose the types of toys you use carefully.Toys should be safe, durable, the right size for your environment and encourage a variety of play.

Specific things to consider when choosing toys include:

  • Ensure toys are accessible. Children of differing abilities should be able to play in, on, or with the toy with little or no help (for example, blocks of different materials, weights, and sizes allow for children’s varying motor abilities). Select materials that address the differences in children’s skill levels. For example, some children may be able to complete a ten-piece puzzle, while others can complete a three-piece puzzle.
  • Ensure toys are adaptable. It’s more important that each child be able to do something playful with a toy than it is for children to all do the same thing or play in the same way with the toy.
  • Look for toys that encourage children to play together, either face-to-face or side-by-sideto encourage them to communicate and play with others
  • Duplicates of materials arranged together allow for verbal and non-verbal communication as more than one child can engage in the play activity simultaneously. For example, provide duplicates of pouring and scooping toys at the sand or water table.
  • Offer play materials that are different to what the children use at home (e.g.natural materials such as a bird’s nest, leaves, pinecones, rocks, shells, or decorating supplies such as wallpaper sample books and fabric swatchbooks).

Understand and Carefully Manage Sensory Issues

We have discussed the sensory challenges many people with ASD experience previously. When developing play opportunities, it is important to understand and carefully manage the sensory issues of those in your group. Those with sensory issues tend to either be under-responsive to sensory input (sensory-seekers) or over-responsive to sensory input (sensory avoidance). The way you manage these issues will vary considerably. Below we will briefly outline some support and play strategies to allow you to meet these sensory needs.

Sensory Seeking

Sensory seeking behaviours involves a decreased response to sensory input. In these cases, children may seek sensory input from their environment to ensure their sensory needs are being met. However, the problem with this is too much input can quickly lead to over stimulation and prompt challenging behaviour.

It is important to recognise what type of sensory information the chid you are working with is seeking, ensure the play activities appropriately provide this input, and also have strategies to manage inappropriate responses to input and challenging behaviours. The below table provides some suggestions:

Sense                             Seeking Behaviours                     Play Activities                                       Supportive Strategies
  • Making loud noises verbally or withobjects
  • Music
  • Clapping
  • Singing
  • Instruments
  • Provide quiet timesto calm overstimulation where necessary
  • Use words or visuals todevelop understanding of when noise is appropriate
  • Smelling objects
  • Smelling people
  • Scented markers
  • Shaving cream play
  • Scented playdough
  • Rice play with safe herbs
  • Cooking activities
  • Model appropriate physicalboundaries and personal space if sniffing people
  • Mouthing, licking, chewing, sucking
  • Excessive drinking
  • Pica (eating of non-food items)
  • Biting
  • Provide appropriate chew toys
  • Blowing bubbles
  • Chewy foods
  • Introducing a variety of flavours and smells
  • Model appropriate boundaries and personal space if mouthing people
  • Use words or visuals to develop understanding of appropriate mouthing
  • Light fixation
  • Spinning toys fixation
  • Craft using cellophane
  • Spinning tops
  • Ribbon play
  • Bubbles
  • Pin wheels
  • Mobiles
  • Ensure eyes are protected and not exposed to dangerouslevels oflight
  • Excessive touching
  • Pinching
  • Rubbing
  • Texture mats
  • Playdough
  • Fidget toys
  • Sand bagsor Sandplay
  • Rice or grain play
  • Model appropriate boundaries and personal space if touching others
  • Use words or visuals todevelop understanding of appropriate touching
Proprioception and Vestibular
  • Spinning
  • Twirling
  • Jumping
  • Trampoline
  • Dancing
  • Ribbons
  • Hopscotch
  • Check spaces for safety · Provide quiet times tocalm overstimulation where necessary

Under-Reactive to Sensory Information

Sensory avoidance behaviours often result fromanincreasedresponsetosensoryinput.In these cases, children avoid sensory input from their environment, and exposure to particularly sensory experiences can quickly overwhelm and overstimulate.

Loud noises, in particular,can be distressing for children with ASD. Too many visual or auditory stimuli at once can also cause stress. Sensitivity to fluorescent or flashing lights can be problematic. Some individuals with ASD may withdraw (e.g. put fingers in their ears, close their eyes) while others ‘stim’. Stimming occurs when individuals make motions such as flapping hands, rocking or flicking fingers to stimulate sensation or to deal with stress. These kinds of behaviour can help calm the individual, so try not to stop it unless absolutely essential.

It is important to recognise what type of sensory information the child you are working with is averse to, ensure the play activities avoid or limit this input, and also have strategies to manage inappropriate responses and challenging behaviours. The below table provides some suggestions of how to manage sensory aversions:

Aversion                                     ManagementStrategy
Taste sensitivity
  • Provide avariety offood andfruit for thechildren tochoose from during snacktime
Noise sensitivity
  • Provide noise cancelling headphones during group/music times
  • Provide quiet background musicthat does not initiate a response
  • Use quiet calming songs and voices during group time
  • Be mindful of the volume,cadence and tone in your voice
Light sensitivity
  • Provide activities away from windows or in shade outdoors
  • Close blinds where necessary
  • Use dark coloured table cloths and mats where possible to minimise light reflection
Touch sensitivity/ texture avoidance
  • Use barriers during sensory play e.g. Gloves, spades, sticks etc.
  • Provide a large range of sensory activities to find something that the child is comfortable with
  • Put textures inside zip lock bags for play
Smell sensitivity
  • Provide play activities with no fragrance

Support Social Interactions

Many children with ASD struggle with social interactions and often prefer to play alone. It is important to understand that this is not necessarily because they do not want to engage with others, it may be because they do not yet possess the social or communication skills needed to engage in play appropriately with another person. When developing play opportunities within PlayConnect it is important to consider the ways in which you can support social interactions.

Some useful strategies to support social interaction may include:

  • Model appropriate playskills, including how to enter play and how to initiate play with another child, and how to take turns
  • Take children’s’ lead and join their play. Copy their play, gesture and verbalisation and allow them to lead the interaction. Once they are comfortable with this, you may introduce something new or vary the play in an attempt to increase “reciprocal play”.
  • Encourage parallel play with another child by putting two tubs of the same toy in a calm corner. Provide individual mats to define each child’s play space.
  • Use turn taking visuals andtimers to encourage two children toplay a game together
  • For children who find it challenging to use words to initiate play, teach visuals or Key Word signs
  • Use activities that encourage group participation and implement them without other distractions, e.g. put all toys away and just set up one play station with an activity. Add in a child’s interest to encourage their participation.