When we think about what’s important to teach in school, many of us may come up with a similar list. We’d list the main academic areas – language arts, math, writing, social studies, science. Maybe we’d sprinkle in some of the “skills” – social skill, life skills, vocational skills, or independent skills. But when does play come up on your list? Does it at all? Or is it way down towards the end? Often we feel so overwhelmed by fitting and catching up with all of the academics that our kids need to learn that teaching play skills becomes an after thought. The break area or play center of your classroom is a catchall “I don’t have staff for this group right now, so chill here with these toys.” This month we are going to focus on the reasons why play is important and how you can incorporate teaching play skills into your classroom. 

If you took my challenge of doing a team mission statement at the start of the year, go back and look at it. What goals did you and your team have for your students? I’d bet that many of those goals can be worked on through building play skills. Wanting your students to be happy, have friends, be independent, or get a job one day can all be targeted through something as simple as play. Scale back a minute. Think about everything that play incorporates. 

Play involves sustained attention. It involves social skills in a huge multitude of ways. Play incorporates creativity and imagination and expands interests. Play builds vocabulary. It involves planning, organizing, sequencing, and problem solving. And all of these skills are worked on in a way that is conveniently and accurately disguised as fun. Here are some words of wisdom from the team: 

“Play is a child’s most important ‘occupation’. It is natural and motivating for them. When kids play, they are working on essential skills such as planning, sequencing, problem solving, language, motor and social skills. Play also offers an opportunity for kids to get the sensory input they may need. As an OT, I can use play therapeutically to work on skills that may be hard in a fun way- and the kids don’t even know it’s therapy! It’s a win-win for everyone.” – Katie

“Play is so important in my classroom because of the natural opportunities it allows for communication and interactions with peers! Children need times in their day to explore at their own pace. You’ll often find me on the floor with them, adults need it too!” -Gina

“Play is the most pure form of learning! While play seems simple on the surface, often the most profound learning experiences happen during play.” – Jen

“Play is an essential part of any child’s education, growth and development, but it is especially important for children with special needs.  We take for granted how easy and naturally we learned social norms and skills,  but it is difficult for our students.  Play offers the opportunity for our students to learn positive and appropriate social skills and is highly motivating! ” – Holly

“Play or leisure is so important because our students will not spend 100% of their adult lives working or completing household chores. They will spend a good portion of their time playing or participating in leisure activities. They will need structured instruction in these tasks as well to have long term success and expand their repertoire of skills.” – Meredith

“Students learn so much through play and interacting with others while playing.  You can work on following directions, requesting, turn-taking, commenting, answering questions, and so much more during play based activities without the students even knowing they are learning!  With my younger students I like to incorporate structured play-based activities in my therapy sessions to target specific core vocabulary concepts and model basic concepts.  Playing is motivating and keeps students engaged.  One of the most important concepts students can learn through play is turn-taking. ” – Sarah  

“The idea of teaching leisure skills can seem counterintuitive at first -but is often necessary for children on the spectrum. (No crying! This is fun! You are having fun darnit!) Finding a leisure activity a child with autism enjoys involves an open mind, trial and error, pairing new activities with preferred items, and a willingness to adapt things to fit the learner.” – Chrissy

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