A free online resource developed to support the inclusion of autistic learners in Scottish Early Learning and Childcare settings, Primary and Secondary schools.

Play and Leisure

Play is such a fundamental part of child rearing, and one that comes so naturally to most babies, children and parents that we often don’t stop to think about the importance of play to so many aspects of a child’s development. 

As parents, most of us are naturally motivated to play and interact with our children. It can come as a surprise therefore if a child isn’t responsive to these attempts, and we may not know what to try next. For many autistic learners, play may be different and more difficult to achieve. As parents, our attempts to engage may sometimes falter. However, with understanding and support it should be possible to progress their play, including their ‘social play’, and for this to also support other areas of their development. 

When we talk about play, people naturally think about young children, however all children and young people should have the opportunity to play every day. 

Play is important for the early stages of brain development and playing with your child can help build relationships for later life. But no matter what age we are, play helps to develop important skills for learning, life and work.  

Encouraging play is one of the best things you can do for your child, whatever their age, and it's free.

Children and young people have a right to play. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child states (in Article 31) that every child should have: 

"The right to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts." 

United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

What is play? 

Free play is what happens when children and young people follow their own ideas and interests in their own way, and for their own reasons. They can do this on their own or with others. It can happen inside or outside. Children and young people should be given the choice of how and when they play. Play is just as important for your teenager as it is for your baby or young child. 

There is lots of information available about the health and wellbeing benefits of play. Active play helps to build strong bones and muscles. Children and young people explore their feelings through play, and this can help them build resilience and cope with stress. 

Play is how young children make sense of the world. There is also evidence to show that play in early childhood can influence the way your child's brain develops, helping to co-ordinate their mental and physical capabilities. Through play, children and young people of all ages develop problem-solving skills, imagination and creativity, language and observation skills, and memory and concentration. Children and young people use play to test their theories about the world and their place in it. 

Play creates a brain that has increased flexibility and improved potential for learning later in life. 
Lester & Russell, 2008.

Stages of Play

The baby or child is primarily occupied with the way things taste, look, sound, feel, smell, etc. For example, he or she not only shakes a rattle but sucks it; feels its texture; examines the way it looks; smells it and plays with other items in a similar way.

The baby or child is concerned with organising the play items but hasn’t acquired an understanding of their purpose. So, for example, they may line up their toy cars but not actually drive them around.

The child has an understanding of the actual purpose of the toys and uses them accordingly. For example, they may now drive the toy car around the floor.

Pretend, or imaginative, play incorporates several levels: Initially the child will use items in a very functional way such as pretending to stir and drink from a toy tea cup. This could be called ‘functional imaginative’ play. 

The next stage is using one item to represent another (e.g. they don’t have a cup so they pretend something else is a cup). 

Imaginary play then develops into increasingly symbolic play such as projecting real life qualities onto a doll or toy animal (e.g. pretending dolly is a person); pretending something or someone is there that isn’t (e.g. an imaginary house) and taking on imaginary roles (role play). 

(Adapted from Beyer & Gammeltoft, 1999).

Solitary play - Playing by themselves 

Spectator play - Spectating as other children play but without interacting 

Parallel play - Playing alongside but with minimal interaction 

Associative play - Playing closely together with associated activities but without sharing their play ideas 

Co-operative play - Ability to play together in a co-operative way 

(Adapted from Sheridan, 1999) 

Play and autism

Play is a recognised area of difference in autism. Some children’s pretend play may be viewed as repetitive and stereotypic. Some may engage in more solitary play. Play patterns will vary from child to child.

By looking at the stages of play and social play it can be seen that many autistic children do show some of these types of play, but this is often different to their typically developing peers. There may be many reasons for this. For example: 

Play is often predominantly social; it uses communication and requires imaginative ability. In autistic children there can be a tendency for play to be solitary and limited to exploring sensory aspects or lining toys up in a rigid manner for much longer than in typical development. Imitation may be difficult. Playing imaginatively may not be achieved to the same extent or in the same types of scenarios seen in typical development. In some older children, ability with memory and imitation can enable them to engage in imaginary scenarios, however, for some children this comes about as a result of rote copying of an activity they have seen other children engaged in; or that they have seen on TV, or in a film or book, rather than being self-generated. Of course, some typically developing youngsters will generate play scenarios based on these sort of experiences but are more likely to be able to deviate and develop them rather than adhering to the original format or content.

At an early developmental stage play can be most successful one to one with an adult partner. Adults should observe and talk with people who know the child well to find out what is motivating for them. This could include particular toys or characters, movement, sensory experiences, surprise (e.g. Peekaboo, pop up toys) or repetition. Some individuals may prefer non-toy items or parts of items to traditional toys and games. Look for opportunities to incorporate preferred sensory experiences/ toys/ interests in to play situations.

Get down to the child’s level. Play alongside or join the child in play by bringing your own toy into the interaction. Reduce your language; it can be helpful to comment on what is happening in the play rather than ask lots of questions. Keep a gentle pace and remember to wait…give the child time to respond.

Create social routines, e.g. Row the Boat, Peekaboo. Predictability and repetition can be calming and reassuring. Look for ways to make play have a predictable start and end and, if the child appears to have enjoyed it, repeat and build on previous play experiences. Think about engagement before introducing turn-taking.

For some autistic learners, play with a peer or peers may need to be supported. Adaptations to the physical and social environment and to routines and structures should be considered before looking at the learner’s skills. Rather than telling an autistic child how to ask others to play with them or writing them a Social Story about how to play with friends, adults around the child should ask themselves:

  • Are games, toys and activities motivating to the learner?
  • Is the play on offer at the right developmental level?
  • Is the play predictable?
  • Are peers and adults seeking to include the child in the play and responsive to their initiations?
  • Is the learner provided with opportunities to participate?
  • Is there a clear role for the learner?