Teaching Play

Play is an important skill for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Through play, children with ASD have opportunities to learn new and important skills. Play provides a context for children with autism spectrum disorder to practice language and social skills in varied situations. Play can also provide a context for adults to introduce and teach new skills that may otherwise be challenging to teach.

Some children learn play skills in a seemingly natural and seamless way from observing and interacting with the world around them. However, some children demonstrate limited play skills and benefit from targeted instruction to teach play. Some children with ASD may tend to play in ways that limit their opportunities to interact with peers or learn new skills. These children may prefer to play only with a very limited number of toys or to play with toys or other items in a very specific way. Some children may not demonstrate any appropriate play skills. Other children may want to engage exclusively in solitary play without the presence of other people. For these children, play can be taught in a similar way to any other important skill.

When planning to teach play, an instructor first assesses the type or level of play that a child currently demonstrates. Play has been categorized in many different ways. These categories are often arranged by level of complexity. One instrument used to classify types of play is the Sherratt and Peter taxonomy. The categories in the taxonomy include the following:


Sensorimotor Play

Sensorimotor play is the most basic form of play. Sensorimotor play includes simple actions such as touching and mouthing objects etc. This type of play is often exhibited by very young children or children with limited play skills.

Relational Play

Relational play consists of using multiple objects together by building, grouping, and/or inserting objects. Examples include putting shapes into a shape sorter bin or stacking rings onto a ring stacker.

Functional Play

Functional play involves using toys in the way they were meant to be used. Examples include driving a toy car or pretending to eat toy foods. 

Symbolic Play

Symbolic play consists of pretending that an item exists that isn’t actually there, giving properties to an object that it doesn’t have, or pretending an item is something else. Examples include pretending that a toy pizza is hot, pretending to put an imaginary blanket on a doll, or using a cup as a hat.

Themed Fantasy Play

Themed fantasy play includes creative and imaginative play that follows a story line. This is an advanced type of play in which children may coordinate with peers or adults to act out a story they have made up.

An instructor may focus on teaching new skills within a child’s current play level or teaching skills at a more advanced level. Once a child demonstrates several play skills within a certain level or of a certain type, an instructor may seek to target additional skills during familiar play routines. Children often benefit from practicing new and challenging skills many times. Play can provide a fun and motivating context for a child to practice a new language or social skill as many times as is needed. Additionally, an instructor can modify a play routine to provide the opportunity for a child to practice a new skill in a slightly different way. Play can make it possible to provide the necessary repetition when targeting a new skill in a controlled setting without instruction feeling like “work” to the child.

Sherratt, D., & Peter, M. (2002). Developing play and drama in children with Autistic Spectrum Disorders. London: David Fulton.