Basic Learner Skills Part 2: Play Skill Building

Categories: Basic Skills | Play

Welcome to part two of my basic learner skills series!  If you are new to basic learner skills and the importance of them, check out my last blog HERE.  Basic learner skills are the skills you need to “learn to learn”.  They are so incredibly important, and I am here today to talk about building play skills.  So often when working in early childhood classrooms, one of the biggest challenges can be playtime.  Many, including myself in my earlier years, kind of just assumed that kids should LOVE play time and that it should be such a natural skill to acquire.  Through working with teachers and now families in the home setting things that often cue me to a deficit in play skills are: “He just always seems to dump toys and kick them around”, “She doesn’t like it when I try and manipulate the toys”, “my other kids love playing with the kitchen center, but Josh wants to just throw the pieces behind the set”.

Play & Social Developmental Milestones

It can be so easy to be caught up in the hustle and bustle of a classroom and set up that when kiddos actually join us, we are stumped when they do not play appropriately.  Surely the amazing grocery store center you set up would be a hit.  And that art center? GOLDEN.  Blocks and vehicles. A dream.  But what happens when you have some friends who seem to just wander, do not share, throw toys, dump toys and don’t seem to like any of the activities you have out?  Take some baseline data notes on behavior you see and toys and areas your student or child gravitates toward.  Then take a peek at developmental milestones and see where your kiddo might be functioning (even if they have some skills in different age ranges).  I love the Center’s for Disease Control and Prevention (or CDC) website.  They have easy to read milestones for different ages along with short 30 second video clips or pictures that match the skills so you can really get a good idea! Check it out HERE.  As mentioned in my last blog I also use the Assessment of Basic Language and Learning Skills (ABLLS).  Below are a few screen shots of the play and leisure skill rubrics you would use to assess a child in this area.  So often a child truly does not have the skills to play with many toys yet or the pretend play skills it takes to engage in the drama and kitchen center.

We cannot expect a child to suddenly want to engage with others or share toys just yet if they do not allow others to manipulate toys or be near them. 


Scaffolding Play with Structured Activity Visuals

I specifically remember bringing out a Mr. Potato Head toy during work with teacher time (yes not even during “play time”) with a student who had consistent throwing behaviors.  He threw everything he could get his hands on within the classroom. I was so baffled by this behavior until I took data and realized that he did it because he had a huge play skill deficit.  He did not yet know how to play appropriately with play doh, blocks, dolls, kitchen materials or Mr. Potato Head.  In fact, those skills were difficult.  What wasn’t difficult was throwing. That was fun.  He would throw things high up into the air because he loved to watch them fall and bounce all over the classroom. Not to mention the adults running to catch them all.  I share this story because it took a long time to teach him how to use the toys and actually enjoy playing with them.  We broke toys down into chunks during teacher time and reinforced him with trampoline breaks and tossing bean bags into a bucket (this was individualized to his reinforcers).  Playing with toys was NOT fun until we took the time to teach him.  Then he LOVED things like Mr. Potato Head and could enjoy play doh with peers without throwing the materials.  Here are some ways to teach toy play:

  • Offer choice in what toys they want to use for teaching time but keep control of the actual pieces.
  • Use structured play visuals to help show how to use a toy or put it together
  • Use a play schedule to show how many tasks the student will be doing. While it is a toy to us, it may very well be work for the student
  • Sandwich in and/or end with reinforcers. Again, play for us, work for our students and they need to be reinforced for their work.
  • While your student may need more help and support in the beginning, remember to fade your prompts. I even try to start off with the least amount possible to see how much they might really need, and this can change from toy to toy. 
  • Eventually bring that toy in the play area or invite a friend over to the table to practice working near or with each other!


Creating and Teaching Structured Play Visuals

I love love love creating structured play visuals! It may seem not necessary however not only do they show your child or student a clear beginning and end to a task (yes, but it’s also task to them right now) however, it keeps you on track as a teacher! Check out my video below on how to create and use these amazing play visuals!  As your child becomes more skilled with these toys, you can invite a friend over to the table and take turns with the pieces or just have them near to build tolerance.  Remember when kiddos are younger, they play near others first without actually engaging.  If you want to learn more about actual social comfort zones and how to teach toy manipulation tolerance, see my post here!

Happy play skill building! 


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