Play and Play-based Learning for Children with Autism

Play is an integral part of a child’s life. Even for us adults, some of our fondest childhood memories include playtime. For many of us, play is about having fun, sweating it out and making new friends. But did you know that play can be a learning experience on its own?


Play-based learning  can be defined as “the method of promoting, facilitating or reinforcing a skill or concept through a play experience.” Children learn so much through play.  It allows them to discover, socialize, negotiate, take risks, create meaning and solve problems – all the important foundations not just for school but for the big world in general.


Children with autism can benefit from play-based learning more than the usual kid. From learning how to interact with other kids to making sense of the world around him, play-based learning can be an effective way of helping our children adapt.


So how do you play? Play is a way of doing things. There is no one definition of play. However, Aistear, Ireland’s curriculum for early childhood development lists down the following characteristics of play:


  1. Active – Children use their bodies and minds in their play. They interact with the environment, with materials and with other people.
  2. Adventurous and risky – Play helps children explore the unknown. The pretend element offers a safety net that encourages children to take risks.
  3. Communicative – Children share information and knowledge through their play. Their communication can be verbal or non-verbal, simple or complex.
  4. Enjoyable – Play is fun and exciting and involves a sense of humor.
  5. Involved – Children become deeply absorbed and focused in their play, concentrating and thinking about what they are doing.
  6. Meaningful – Children play about what they have seen and heard and what they know. Play helps them build and extend their knowledge, understanding and skills in a way that makes sense to them.
  7. Sociable and interactive – Children play alongside or with others. Sometimes they also like and need to play alone.
  8. Symbolic – Children imagine and pretend when they are playing. They try out ideas, feelings and roles. They re-enact the past and rehearse the future.
  9. Therapeutic – Play helps children express and work through their emotions and experiences.
  10. Voluntary – Children choose to play. Their play is spontaneous. They shape it as they go, changing the characters, events, objects and locations.

As a parent to a child with autism, you might still be skeptical of play-based learning as a beneficial tool for your child. Don’t worry, you’re not alone. Here are some of the common misconceptions about play and play-based learning that we often hear:





  • “It’s a waste of time!”
    Sure you may think that way because for most adults the mental picture of playing is kids sweating, making noises and making a mess. But the thing is, play is how your child makes sense of his environment. Active play builds your child’s muscles and bones. Playgrounds teach them how to take turns, negotiate and cooperate - essential skills that therapists teach and reinforce during our children’s therapy.

  • “Play is just for preschoolers. My gradeschooler won’t benefit from it.”
    The most beautiful thing about play is that it has no limits. Whatever your child’s age is, he or she can play and learn through it. Even adults can benefit from it. Have fun with your kids and rediscover your inner child. Not only will it help you destress, it will also help you better understand how your child sees and does things.

  • “I guess all children can play.”
  • Remember, children in the spectrum often see things in a different perspective. While some kids can easily socialize and play with other kids, children with autism may find it difficult to socialize and communicate with other kids. They might also find themselves having a hard time enjoying or expressing themselves. This is where we come in. As adults, we can supervise and encourage our kids to play, from planning activities for them to introducing them to other kids. Don’t be discouraged if your child ends up playing too rough or when they end up in tears. Like most of their activities, play takes time and some practice.

  • “My child doesn’t have a lot of toys.”
  • One of the biggest misconception about play is the idea that it requires toys. There are many ways to encourage your child to play. And given how kids in the spectrum have a different perspective of things, you might be surprised by what they can come up wit
    Fun story: There was a time when bottle caps would mysteriously disappear in our home. Soda bottles in the fridge were left open but untouched. Condiments were left on the countertop opened. You get the picture. Turns out my then-3-year-old daughter would collect them. She would sort them out by size and color. She would then play with them, create towers and make up stories with bottle cap characters.

  • “I can’t clean up my child’s mess all the time!”
  • Play teaches your child social skills, motor skills and academic skills. But it can also teach your child values and good behavior. Telling your child to clean up after playing teaches him to be responsible and independent, and is also a good way to reinforce a positive habit that he can carry with him until he grows old.

  • “I don’t think my child is cut out from play.”
  • If your child is shy or melts down when in big groups, you can encourage her to play in small groups and facilitate activities that won’t require them running around or making loud noises. You can also introduce solo activities that would still encourage him to have fun and learn if he’s still uncomfortable interacting with many kids.

  • “I think his tablet is enough play for him.”
  • Don’t get us wrong. We believe that not all technology is bad. There are many interactive apps and toys that enhance knowledge and develop children’s thinking and logical skills. But as much as we love our iPad, physical play is still important. Whether it’s a child in the spectrum or a neurotypical child, human interaction is essential. Touching and feeling his surroundings is important. Touching, smelling and tasting an actual apple is different from seeing an apple on an iPad screen.

  • “My child is an only child.”
  • Your child may not have other kids to play with all the time but he has you, his parents. Play is not just between kids. As parents, it’s important to have these shared experiences with your child. It allows you to bond and create memories with them. It also allows you to get to know your child better - how they see things and how they do things. It’s also an effective way to practice and reinforce your child’s therapist’s advice.

  • “I feel like a bad parent letting him play unsupervised.”
  • There are many benefits to adult-led and supervised play, but it’s also important for your child to play independently. Letting your child play independently encourages your child to explore, experiment, be creative and learn to solve problems on his own. The best way for you to do this is to establish a safe area for your child to play and learn, wherein you can still see and hear him while still giving him his personal space and freedom.



    “Children learn as they play. Most importantly, in play children learn how to learn.”
  • O. Fred Donaldson
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