Teaching Play Skills

Categories: Play | Social Skills

Some of the most frequent questions I get from parents and teachers are how to teach play skills and what should I be expecting when I see children play? You might have had this beautiful, peaceful vision when you opened your play centers or implemented free play time only for it to be quickly interrupted with reality:  dumping of toys, hitting, snatching, crying, and the list goes on.  Or maybe that was just me as a Pre-K 3 teacher.  If you’re new to teaching or want to revamp how you approach play skills keep reading!

Setting up your play area

I plan on writing a dedicated post to setting up a centers area however, it is important to mention a few tips!  When I set up my very first Pre-K 3 classroom, I was so excited.  The shelves were like the pictures above (pictures taken from two different daycare classrooms) and they were packed with perfectly coordinated and baskets of toys and building blocks.  Everything was open and inviting and I could not wait for my kids to get in there.  Well to be honest it was an absolute disaster.  Many of my students who were enrolled that year had never been to any type of program outside of their home.  And not to mention they were only three years old.  There was basket dumping, kids were slipping on toys, throwing, snatching and just pure chaos.  Considering that I did not have an actual heart attack from that experience, as soon as the kids left, I got to work.  I took almost all the toys off the shelves and left a just a few in each basket.  They were bare but it was necessary.  I also put up my wall dividers to close them off because trying to explain to a three-year-old that it’s “not time yet” to be in centers doesn’t always happen in the beginning.  I also eventually added some pictures to the outside of the baskets so I could teach my students how to clean up and figure out where everything went.  It was a complete 360 from the day before just by doing this. I could go into centers and show how they could play with the toys and how to put them back before moving onto another basket.  I even found it useful to use some of my work with teacher time to show some students how they could play with a certain toy and how to share.  Most centers will have some type of block and kitchen area which I love because these types offer so much possibility with pretend play and ability to scaffold skills (i.e.: one child in the kitchen area might be engaging in 3+ step related action play while another student enjoys putting food in the fridge and taking it out repeatedly).

What are some play and group skills?

I love using these social skills rubrics to help guide what I want to work on with play skills.  You can modify these to fit your needs, there are two on a page so that you can cut them in half or look at two students at once!  Teaching these skills take SO MUCH MODELING.  And continuous modeling.  If your student is not yet greeting a peer or inviting them to play, go into centers and practice this with them.  Walk them through each of the steps of taking their hand and waving and what they can say (i.e.: “play blocks?”).  Model it on a device and/or core language boards. I always made sure I at least had some core and fringe boards posted in all my centers for easy access to modeling.  Find the social skills rubrics here and check out the video below!

Help! My student doesn’t seem interested in play

Do you have students who pace the room carrying objects around? Maybe they dump toys and just walk off? Or maybe they do not seem interested in interacting with others?  Keep in mind that there is more to play then just object play.  These routines are called Sensory Social Routines and they are so incredibly important to capturing attention, language acquisition and learning opportunities.  Some students may not have as much of an internal drive to interact with others YET.  This leads to missing learning opportunities because think about how much we learn through interacting with others.  Try going into the cozy corner center and putting a blanket over yourself and playing “BOO” or “Surprise!”.  The goal here is to see if the child will engage in a more social routine of play.  This will teach the child to seek out others for play and communicating opportunities because….fun is reinforcing! But our idea of fun may be different from a child’s.  Sometimes as teachers and parents we try to disrupt their play and interest them in something else we think they should be playing with.  This may cause the child to leave the area or become upset.  This leads me to  finding “social comfort zones”.  You may have students who run away from you when you approach them to play, or their body demeanor changes when we get too close.  Instead of trying to change a child’s way of play, try joining in by narrating, imitating, and helping from a distance they are comfortable with.  If a child is walking around with a car, you can walk around with another car and mirror their sounds and movements.  By doing this, you’re conveying the message of “I see you, I hear you”.  You might be surprised by the reaction you get.  You can read more about these strategies hereHappy Playing!


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