Structured play: what is it?
Structured play is when an adult provides resources, starts play or joins in with children’s play to offer some direction or guidelines.
Free play is unplanned play that just happens, depending on what children are interested in at the time.
Structured play and free play are both important for children’s development.
How structured play can help autistic children
Structured play activities can be particularly useful for autistic children who are learning early play skills like sharing, taking turns and interacting with other children.
This is because structured play activities usually give children clear guidelines about what to do and when. They also usually have clear end points. This can help your child understand the steps, skills, activities or ideas that are needed to get to the end goal of the game. It makes games and play activities more predictable and manageable for autistic children.
All of this creates a lower-stress environment where your child can try out the skills they need to play and interact successfully with other children.
How to structure a play activity for autistic children
The first step is choosing an appropriate play activity. Activities that have a clear goal and end point are best. These include jigsaws, puzzle books, song and action DVDs, picture lotto and matching games.
Next, you could try creating a visual support:
- Represent each step of the activity with visual cues attached to a board. The cues could be objects, pictures or words.
- Pull off each cue during the activity as your child progresses, so that your child can clearly see the next stage of the activity.
- Gradually reduce your support until your child can use the visual support and complete the activity on their own.
To start with, your child might not find the activity or its end result fun by itself. You might need to add something else to help your child learn that this type of play can be fun. For example, if your child loves your tickles, you can tickle your child after each stage of the activity is finished, and then have a big tickle session at the end of the whole activity.
This extra reinforcement will help your child to have a positive experience of the structured play activity while they’re learning play skills.
Structured play with autistic children: tips
These tips can help you and your autistic child get the most out of structured play:
- Use your child’s interests. For example, if your child loves Thomas the Tank Engine, start by using Thomas-themed jigsaws, puzzles or colouring books.
- Choose activities that your child can do. Think about which stage of play your child is at and try moving play onto the next stage. For example, if your child is banging blocks, introduce some turn-taking with the blocks.
- Use your child’s strengths. For example, if your child responds well to visual cues, try a very visual activity like sorting coloured blocks.
- Talk only as much as you need to.
- Keep playtime short.
- Redirect inappropriate play. For example, if your child is banging blocks together, you could prompt your child to stack them or redirect your child to different activity that involves banging.
Building on structured play with autistic children
As your autistic child learns to complete structured play activities on their own, you can begin to expand how long you play and the number of activities you do with your child. For example, once your child can complete a few activities, try to set up a few different play stations around the house.
This way, your child can practise moving between activities and focusing on different things without having you there all the time.