Learn to Play, Play to Learn

Playing is an integral part of daily life for children. Through playing, all aspects of development can be promoted. For example, social skills such as sharing, cooperation, and turn-taking can be targeted while playing with a peer or family member (Lantz, 2001). Play takes many forms such as running, playing hide and seek, making art, or playing dress up. In today’s blog, we will discuss the different stages of play, how behavior therapists may encourage play, and ideas on how to promote play at home.

Stages of Play (Pathways, 2018)

1)      Unoccupied Play – This is when a child explores and discovers how their body moves (e.g., moving their arms, legs, feet, hands).

2)      Solitary Play – This is when a child plays alone and may include engaging with a toy.

3)      Spectator/Onlooker Behavior – This occurs when a child starts to watch other children play.

4)      Parallel Play – This is when a child plays beside or near other children but does not play with them.

5)      Associate Play – This is when a child interacts with others while playing mainly to give, take, and share toys. However, the amount of interaction is minimal.

6)      Cooperative Play – This is when a child plays and engages with others in the same activity.

ABA Interventions

1)      Natural Environment Teaching (NET) – This teaching method involves commenting on items/activities the child chooses to do. The goal is to increase a child’s verbal behavior, as well as expand their verbal responses. For example, if a child was playing with cars, saying “Wow! Your car is going so fast! Should my car go fast or slow?”

2)      Video Modeling – This teaching methodology has been found effective to teach children with autism a variety of skills. Video modeling is when adults or peers are recorded while acting out the targeted skill (e.g., playing with baby dolls). The goal is for the student to imitate the observed actions from the video to learn the skill (MacDonald, Mansfield, Wiltz, & Ahearn, 2009).

3)      Scripts – This is a specific visual strategy often used to promote social-communicative interaction while playing. Research has shown scripts are effective in enhancing interaction among children sociodramatic play (Goldstein & Cisar, 1992). Once scripts are learned, spontaneous responses are facilitated.

ErinoakKids Centre for Treatment and Development (2012). Sample Play Script.

 Retrieved from https://www.erinoakkids.ca/ErinoakKids/media/EOK_Documents/Autism_Resources/Teaching-Play-Skills.pdf

Other Visual Examples –

Memorizing the Moments. (2013, June 17). Block Building Templates. Retrieved from http://www.memorizingthemoments.com/2013/06/block-building-templates.html?m=1

Christine Reeve (2013-2018). Playground Schedule. Retrieved from https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/Playground-Schedule-and-Script-Freebie-Autism-Special-Education-923613

Tips and Ideas at Home

  • Be sure to build play time within your child’s schedule.
  • Model how to play with the materials and/or toys. For example, if playing with play dough, show your child how you are making three balls to stack on each other to make a snowman. Ask them if they can make a snowman too.
  • As the holidays are near and you might be considering what to get your child, think about presents that could encourage your child’s play, based on their current developmental skills.
  • Set screen limits.
  • Get creative! Set up obstacle courses, build a fort out of blankets, decorate cookies, make slime.
  • If available, consider attending a play group.
  • Consider enrolling your child in an organized activity (e.g., gymnastics, karate).

In conclusion, playing is essential for all children’s development. Through play, children socialize, learn, and have fun! As Mr. Rogers said, “Play gives children a chance to practice what they are learning.”  Hopefully the holiday break provides some extra opportunities for playing and family time! Happy Holidays!


ErinoakKids Center for Treatment and Development. (2012). Teaching Play Skills to Children with Autism.

Goldstein, H., & Cisar, C. L. (1992). Promoting interaction during sociodramatic play: Teaching scripts to typical preschoolers and classmates with disabilities. Journal of applied behavior analysis25(2), 265-280.

Lantz, J. (2001). Play time: An examination of play intervention strategies for children with autism spectrum disorders. The Reporter, 6(3), 1-7, 24.

MacDonald, R., Sacramone, S., Mansfield, R., Wiltz, K., & Ahearn, W. H. (2009). Using video modeling to teach reciprocal pretend play to children with autism. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis42(1), 43-55.

6 Stages of Play: How Kids Learn to Play. (n.d.). Retrieved from

How Kids Learn to Play: 6 Stages of Play Development


Promoting Smoother Transitions

Transitions are an inevitable aspect of life as they occur throughout the day and in all settings – at home, school, work, and in the community. According to Merriam-Webster, a transition is defined as a “passage from one state, stage, subject, or place to another: CHANGE.” Transitions typically require an individual to: 1) stop an activity, 2) move locations, and 3) begin something new. Transitions are difficult for many children, triggering undesired behaviors. Thus, it is critical to target transitions and add some ease to everyday life.

 Below are a few focal interventions often implemented:

1)      Priming – Priming occurs when a student is given the opportunity to preview activities or given information ahead of time. This promotes predictability. Depending on the student, priming could occur an entire day before the activity or shortly before the activity. An example of priming is when schools provide an opportunity for students to meet their teacher, see their classroom, and find out who is in their classroom before the first day of school.  

2)      Social Stories – Some students greatly benefit from incorporating social stories about transitions and/or unexpected events. Social stories can be used as a method for priming and preparing the student for what is going to happen, whether it is for an anticipated change (holidays, appointments), a day-to-day transition (brushing teeth, getting dressed), or major transitions (changing schools, becoming a sibling).



3)      Visual Schedules – Visual schedules incorporate pictures, text, and/or icons. It provides a student a schedule of what tasks and activities to expect throughout a certain time period (e.g., entire day, at school, after school, bedtime routine). If there is a change in the routine schedule, it is possible to use priming and the visual schedule to prepare the student for what is going to happen. For example, if grandma is coming over after lunch (something that typically does not happen routinely), then putting a picture of grandma after the lunch icon and telling the student “after lunch, grandma is coming.” A behavior therapist can help determine what type of visual schedule will best support your child as there are many different versions.                 

Tips and strategies to use at home and in the community:

          Try to plan ahead and provide cues before a transition is going to occur, whether it is simply “time for a bath after dinner” to practicing what happens at a birthday party before going to it (e.g., singing happy birthday, opening presents).

          Use a visual timer so the child can see how much time is left before the transition. There are many visual timer apps for smartphones/tablets ranging from free to $1.99 or one can be bought for $25-30 on Amazon.


          Use positive reinforcement (verbal praise) after transitions (e.g., “I love how you cleaned up and went to the table!”

          Provide adequate time for child to finish task or activity to prevent frustration of not being able to finish.

          Practice, practice, practice! 

In conclusion, with practice and support, transitions may become smoother! As a child improves with transitions, there will be a reduction in the amount of transition time required, how much prompting is required, less undesired behaviors and most importantly, increase more successful participation within daily life and in the community!




Hume. (2008). Transition Time: Helping Individuals on the Autism Spectrum Move Successfully

from One Activity to Another. The Reporter 13(2), 6-10.


Lupiani, N. (2014, December 29). Social Stories for Transitions & Unexpected Events. Retrieved

from https://www.storyboardthat.com/articles/e/transitions-social-story


Ostrosky, M. M., Jung, E. Y., & Hemmeter, M. L. (n.d.). Elping Children Make Transitions

between Activities. Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning.


Transition. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/transition


Limitless Teaching Opportunities

In applied behavior analysis, two of the most predominate methodologies include discrete trial training (DTT) and incidental teaching. Core features of DTT include repetition and sequenced instruction, in order to target certain skills, while on the other hand, incidental teaching involves elaborating on what a child initiates (Weiss, 2005). Today, we will be discussing the latter.

So, what is incidental teaching?
– The teacher arranges opportunities or sets the environment to encourages the learner’s interest.
– It is child-initiated, which means once the environment is arranged, the teacher waits for the student to initiate interaction.
– Once the child either asks or makes a comment about the item/topic, the teacher prompts an elaboration.
– After the child responds, the teacher provides reinforcement (e.g., teacher gives him/her the item, attention, etc., for what he/she has initiated).

Why is it used?
– It is an effective way of teaching a variety of language and conversation skills, including the ability to initiate interactions.
– It provides learning opportunities where the skills naturally occur.
– It promotes generalization.
– Seems less like “work” for child as the child is initiating and therefore, motivated.

Examples of incidental teaching:
– Child loves apple juice. Dad is pouring a glass of apple juice that is out of reach, yet near the child. Child reaches for juice, dad prompts “J—-,” child says “juice,” dad gives child juice to reinforce the elaborated response. (This demonstrates an example of controlling access to item and moving item closer to student/child).
– Mom is pushing child on a swing. Mom stops pushing child and waits for the child to ask for more pushes. (This demonstrates an example of starting a preferred activity and then stopping).
– Therapist brings in special farm animal toys. Child asks for toys, therapist gives child toys. Child says, “Duck.” Therapist responds with, “A yellow duck!” as the child moves duck around. (This demonstrates an example of using items of special interest to student).

It is important to prompt the child to produce just a slightly more complex level of their current language skills. For example, if child says single words, model 2 words. Once a child is using 2-3 word sentences, prompt for more complete sentences by adding adjectives (e.g., colors, shapes, size, numbers), adverbs (e.g., fast, slow, soft, rough), and prepositions (e.g., in, on under, next to, behind). For example, if a child is asking for help they may first say “help,” and then, “Help me,” to “Can I have help?”

An example of an interaction in incidental teaching. Illustration by Tale Hendnes.

In conclusion, learning may occur in a highly structured and systematic manner or be embedded into our day to day lives. While ABA therapist are trained in using incidental teaching, really anyone can do it. You may already be doing it without realizing it! Regardless, it is important to recognize the idea that learning can occur at any time or place and with incidental teaching, any opportunity can be turned into a learning moment!


Comprehensive Guide to Autism – Scientific Figure on ResearchGate. Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/An-example-of-an-interaction-in-incidental-teaching-Illustration-by-Tale-Hendnes_fig2_268443242

Hart, B. M., & Risley, T. R. (1982). How to use incidental teaching for elaborating language. Austin, TX: Pro-Ed.

Weiss, M. J. (2005). Comprehensive ABA programs: Integrating and evaluating the implementation of varied instructional approaches. The Behavior Analyst Today, 6(4), 249.

Addressing Writing Skills

Despite the immense growth of typing and texting in our technology-driven world, writing skills remain essential. Children use writing skills both for fun and academic purposes. In order to scribble, color, trace, copy, or write, writing skills are required. If a child is having trouble with writing, not only could coloring or completing written school work be affected, but other fine motor tasks (movements using smaller muscles in the hands, fingers, wrists) could also be difficult for the child to complete (e.g., getting dressed, holding a cup, various play activities). Therefore, if we notice writing skills as a concern, we will address this through a variety of researched based interventions.

Below are a few focal interventions often implemented:

Prompt Fading – Prompt fading involves starting with the level of prompt the child currently needs and fading prompts until the child learns the writing skill independently. For example, the therapist may begin with using hand-over-hand physical prompts to help teach a child to hold a crayon correctly to color. Next, the therapist might prompt the child by modeling how to hold the crayon and color within the lines. Once the child is able to model the therapist, the therapist may just need to remind the child to stay within the lines when coloring (a verbal prompt) until the child independently colors within the lines.

Chaining – This is used to breakdown a task that requires multiple steps. For example, when learning to trace, copy, or write one’s name, breaking it down into small steps by first teaching only one letter in the child’s name such as the last letter (if using backward chaining) can be helpful. If the child’s name was “Carl” you would have “Car_” already written and the child would first learn the letter “l.” Once this was learned, the letters “Ca__” would already be written and the child would then learn to write both “r” and “l.” The next step would be for only “C____” to be written out, and the child would then learn to write “a,” “r,” and “l.” Lastly, the child learns to write his whole name, “Carl.”

Backward-Chaining/Trace, Imitate, Copy, Memory Worksheet (Klee, I. C., McLaughlin, T. F., Derby, K. M., Donica, D. K., Weber, K. P., & Kalb, G., 2015, p. 63)

Handwriting Without Tears is a common program used to teach handwriting that incorporates a variety of strategies.  An example of one strategy is through verbal prompts and utilizing the program’s language to help with formation of numbers and letters (e.g., writing an R – “Big line, little curve, little line”). Another strategy is through visual prompts. For example, some Handwriting Without Tears worksheets provide a smiley face to indicate where the child should begin writing.

Writing Without Tears Worksheets id#0 Worksheet. (n.d.).

Writing Without Tears Worksheets id#0 Worksheet. (n.d.).

Besides these interventions, there are many other ways to practice fine motor/writing skills such as:

  • Create a necklace/bracelet (can be modified by using different sizes of beads or string thickness)
  • Play-doh
  • Games (e.g. Connect Four, Pop the Pig, card games like Uno)
  • Shaving cream (e.g., draw pictures, practice writing shapes/letter/words, play tic-tac-toe)
  • iPad apps (e.g., iWrite Words, Letter School, HWT – Wet Dry Try, Alphabet Tracing – Free) Having the child use a stylus can work on holding a writing utensil.
  • Cooking (e.g., make chocolate chip cookies and encourage child to pick up chocolate chips using only their “pinchers” – thumb and index finger)

To conclude, a tip to promote a child to use their fingers and work on fine motor skill is to give a child small, broken crayons to color, draw, and/or write. This way children are required to use their fingers, instead of grabbing it with their fist.



Carlson, B., Mclaughlin, T. F., Derby, K. M., & Blecher, J. (2017). Teaching preschool children with autism and developmental delays to write. Electronic Journal of Research in   Education Psychology,7(17). doi:10.25115/ejrep.v7i17.1313

Klee, I. C., McLaughlin, T. F., Derby, K. M., Donica, D. K., Weber, K. P., & Kalb, G. (2015). Using Handwriting Without Tears® and a modified copy, cover, compare through chaining to teach name writing to a preschooler with developmental delays to write his                           name. IJAR1(3), 59-65.

MacDuff, G. S., Krantz, P. J., & McClannahan, L. E. (2001). Prompts and prompt-fading strategies for people with autism. Making a  difference: Behavioral intervention for autism, 37-50.

Writing Without Tears Worksheets id#0 Worksheet. (n.d.). Retrieved from   http://bookmarkurl.info/worksheet/writing-without-tears-worksheets-0.html