Play and Leisure


For all children and young people play is one of the essential vehicles for learning within a safe and secure environment. Play and leisure are a basic right and entitlement of childhood: 

UNCRC (1989), Article 31 – ‘States Parties recognize the right of the child to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts.’

This is supported by General Comment 17 (UNCRC, 2013) which recognises one of the optimal conditions for play as: ‘Freedom from social exclusion, prejudice or discrimination.’

For those with SLD play as a key area of learning needs to be expanded at the rate and speed which each individual learner can manage. Play must take a central part in any curriculum discussions and it must be given time to develop. Play skills must be given greater consideration in planning. It will almost certainly continue to be central for the whole of the learners’ educational path.

Like play skills, leisure activities are an important component of life for everyone. Engaging in activities that are fun and enjoyable increases an individual’s well-being, happiness, and overall enjoyment in life. There are social benefits too as leisure skills and interests can connect individuals who share the same passion, and this creates friendships based on common interests. By exposure to a wide range of activities and experiences, the individual’s range of interests is broadened. 

However, the development of play and leisure skills can be challenging for autistic children and young people due to a number of factors:

  • May be unlikely to learn spontaneously through observing and modelling, and will often have difficulty in generalising learned play skills from one context to another
  • May be overwhelmed by the sensory experiences in some play activities
  • May experience difficulties remembering what they played last time and with whom
  • May have difficulties understanding and remembering exactly what the rules were last time and the time before that
  • Present with limited expressive and receptive communication skills, thus creating challenges in joint play with their peers
  • Face difficulties in repairing communicative breakdowns so that disagreements and children’s natural disputes and disagreements may create barriers to extended play experiences
  • Have poor concentration skills and may not be able to follow the ‘rules’ which themselves may be changed from minute to minute
  • Have problems with flexibility of thought and engage in rigid routines or rituals which prevent the development of play skills
  • May experience anxiety around new experiences and therefore may be reluctant to try a new activity

Autism affects the development of social and communication skills, which are central to the development of important skills needed for play, for example:

  • Copying simple actions
  • Exploring the environment
  • Sharing objects and paying attention to others
  • Imagining what other children are thinking and feeling
  • Responding to others
  • Turn taking with peers

Link on social skills can impact on leisure skills can be viewed here

Development of Object and Social Play

When supporting a child or young person’s play and leisure skills it is important to consider the development of play skills and how the child or young person currently engages with toys and other children. Usually, children move through these stages in a sequence and so it is important that activities are pitched to the child or young person’s current stage to ensure they are successful. For example, some children or young people may not be ready to take part in play that involves sharing materials as they must first work on playing in proximity to others. Below is a brief outline of the stages of object play and social play. 

 Development of Object Play (Hughes, 2002)

  • Exploratory play: exploring the physical features of an object.
  • Relation play: objects are related to each other in simple ways such as banging them together.
  • Functional play: Using objects socially in terms of their conventional use. For example, a toy phone is used as a pretend phone. 
  • Symbolic: Substituting objects to use symbolically.  

Development of Social Levels of Play:

  • Proximity: The child has an ability to be near others without demands of interaction.
  • Parallel: The child can share space with others but not the play materials.
  • Sharing: The child is beginning to share materials which are the same as their peers.
  • Co-Operation/Giving: The child can engage in co-operative play such as turn taking, following the rules in a game, and demonstrates a reciprocal understanding.

Link here on the stages of development of play

As previously outlined children usually progress through the stages in sequence, however, what is more important is that the child or young person is moving through the stages, and not which stage they are at currently. ‘Each child develops at their own rate. What is important is the general trend of your child’s development and not that your child reaches a stage at a fixed time‘ (Health Service Executive, 2016).

Link here for Play and Leisure Skills webinar
Link here for Play Research Bulletins
Link here for Social and Leisure Skills Research Bulletin

Link here for further information on Leisure Skills
Link here for further information on Social Skills and Friendships

Strategies for Developing Play and Leisure Skills

The first step is choosing an appropriate play or leisure activity. The activity should be related to the child or young person’s specific interests. For example, if the child or young person is interested in Sonic the Hedgehog, start by Sonic themed activities such as jigsaws, puzzles or colouring pages. It is easiest to develop an understanding of an activity on a one – to – one basis before adding in supporting adults or other children.

Assessing the child or young person’s preferences can be done through observing their choice of activities or presenting real-life items, or objects/ photos on a choice board and noting what the child or young person was drawn to. This information can be recorded on a reinforcement assessment.

Link here to view an example reinforcement inventory
Link here to view an example choice board template

Leisure Choice Board

 First Then Leisure

Next provide structure and predictability to prepare the child for what will happen during the play or leisure time by creating an activity system outlining what activities will be completed as shown in the example below. 

Leisure Schedule Example

The child or young person will then benefit from the activities which will be included during this time being structured to visually show what is expected.  Within tasks working from a left to right, or top to bottom sequence will support the child or young person’s understanding. The number of steps included in the task will be differentiated to each child or young person.

Link here for more information on providing structured tasks
Link here for example structured activities

 Structured Activity

It is important that the child or young person is taught how to complete an activity by breaking it down into step-by-step instructions. How this is presented will be in keeping with the child or young person’s level of understanding.

Outdoor Play

The importance of outdoor play is becoming more apparent and this is being recognised within education. Outdoor play is essential for children’s healthy physical, social-emotional and cognitive development, yet often play spaces are not equipped to support the needs of children with physical and intellectual differences.This impacts on their opportunities for healthy growth, development and social interaction, as they face a range of barriers relating to access, environmental design and social expectations, which can result in frustration, anxiety, and lack of engagement in outdoor play.  

In order to promote inclusive play, outdoor spaces must encourage not only play which is active and outgoing but play which is more cautious and reserved. As such, it is felt that ‘the wider the variety of play and ways of playing the environment supports, the more inclusive it is of children with a wide range of abilities and needs’ (Casey, 2011)

Structured outdoor environments such as the school playground, for example, can provide a safe and familiar environment for autistic children and young people to learn social skills through play with peers as part of the daily school routine (Keith & Reyes, 2016). Research suggests the benefit of dividing the play space into different zones for different activities (McAllister & Sloan, 2016). Link here for more information on structuring the physical environment

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