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Importance of Play for Children with Autism

It is more than just fun; play is a priceless educational investment.

It is not ‘just’ play; play is an essential part of any child’s development, and it is how children learn. Through play, children develop their language, cognitive and socio-emotional skills which will serve them well in the future. However, children with autism do not necessarily pick up on these skills naturally, and that is when we must step in to help scaffold their learning.

There are many different types of play. Let me walk you through the importance of each and give you some tips on how you can help your child!

1. Exploratory/Sensory play

This is where children explore the world with their bodies. It helps them make sense of the world around them and develops their problem-solving skills as they figure their way around things.

Tip: Create opportunities for your child to explore! Let them see, smell, taste, hear, touch different things and textures. Play with sand, play dough, water, etc.

2. Cause & effect play

This sort of play involves toys that require an action to produce an outcome. For example, jack-in-the-box, toys that light up/make sounds when you press a button. It teaches children that their actions have consequences.

Tip: Introduce cause and effect toys to your children and demonstrate how to play. Then, let them explore the toy themselves to see if they can operate it independently (helps develop problem-solving skills & perseverance too!). If they can do it, praise them! If not, you might have to step in to teach them how to operate it. You do not want your child to get too frustrated and end up not playing at all. You can also take the opportunity to teach your child how to mand, ask for help, and take turns.

3. Functional play

Basically, playing with toys the way they are designed to be played—driving a toy car instead of hitting it against the table, spinning a top instead of throwing it. This is important because if a child is unable to play with toys functionally, they will not be able to engage in play with others.

Tip: Instead of immediately jumping in to guide them on how to play, practice O.W.L—observe, wait & listen. Observe what your child is doing, wait for your child to say/do something and listen to what your child says. What you also want to do is to join in their play! Sit in front of them, use your own set of toys, copy and narrate what they are doing. Then get them to copy you.

4. Constructive play

Constructive play involves children using materials to create something. For example, building a tower of blocks, or a playdough model. It requires planning and working towards a goal.

Tip: Provide them with the materials—lego, blocks, play dough, clay etc. And model to show them what they can do with the materials before leaving them on their own to exercise their creativity.

5. Physical play

As the name says it—running, jumping, climbing, spinning, and ‘wrestling’ around! This type of play is great for gross motor development and for children to develop their body awareness.

Tip: Bring your child outdoors, play a game of catch, go on a swing, pretend to have a pillow fight.

6. Pretend play

Pretend play is one of the most complex play skills and possibly the most important—it is said to be a child’s rehearsal of how to act in the real world. It involves a child’s imagination and ability to act out a narrative. Through pretending, children learn to consider others’ perspective, negotiate, and express themselves (build language). The best part about pretend play is that it enhances a child’s creativity— I could put a bowl on my head and pretend it is a crown! It lays the groundwork for metaphors and decontextualization.

Tip: Start off with simple pretend actions like hitting your chest and going “Ooo! Ooo! Ah! Ah!” to pretend to be a monkey. Then move on to daily activities—like pretending to eat food, making a call, or drinking from an empty cup. You could also get your child to reenact their favorite books/videos.

7. Social play

Social play is the ability to play with others and it typically develops in 6 stages. What you can do to help your child is to find out which stage your child is at and create opportunities for them to progress to the next.

i. Unoccupied play. This ‘play’ is often observed in babies—where they are still observing and learning about the world.

To move on to the next stage: Start introducing them to toys.

ii. Solitary play. Solitary play is where a child starts playing alone. They are often engrossed in their own activity and are disinterested in what others are doing.

To move on to the next stage: This is where you introduce them to the different types of play mentioned above so that your child can play well with others (if your child doesn’t have any play skills, they will have difficulties playing with others).

iii. Onlooker play. This is where the child looks at others playing but does not join in.

To move on to the next stage: Try encouraging your child to play on their own, but side by side with another child.

iv. Parallel play. Playing side by side with others, but not together.

To move on to the next stage: Help your child see the value of playing with others— provide toys/games that require 2-4 people to play and be there to facilitate. Give the other child a reinforcer that your child likes so that your child will be more inclined to interact with others.

v. Associative play. Child starts to play and interact with others but with no clear goal.

To move on to the next stage: Teach your child how to join in, start introducing the concept of sharing/trading, taking turns.

vi. Cooperative play. This is the highest form of play where it involves following rules and playing well with others.

To move on to the next stage: Go through social stories with your child to teach them social rules, start off with games with simple instructions like hide-and-seek.

With that, I hope you now have a better understanding of play and have gained some useful tips that will help your child engage in it. This will not only enable them to have fun, but also gain the benefits that come along with it. Remember, it is not ‘just’ play, these are valuable learning experiences that your child needs!

Written by Geraldine.


Solomon, L., & Grunebaum, H. (1982). Stages in social development: Friendship and peer relations. Hillside Journal of Clinical Psychiatry.

Thomas*, N., & Smith, C. (2004). Developing play skills in children with autistic spectrum disorders. Educational Psychology in Practice, 20(3), 195-206.

Vig, S. (2007). Young children’s object play: A window on development. Journal of Developmental and Physical Disabilities, 19(3), 201-215.

Whitebread, D., Basilio, M., Kuvalja, M., & Verma, M. (2012). The importance of play. Brussels: Toy Industries of Europe.

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