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Teachable Moments: Ways to Build Learning into Everyday Play

October 19, 2022
By Elisabeth Dawkins, M.S, LPC-Associate

"Fish swim. Birds Fly. Children Play." In its profound simplicity, this quote by Gary Landreth (widely accepted as the father of play therapy) says it all. Most growth and learning that a child experiences happens, one way or another, through play. Kids typically have neither the vocabulary nor maturity required to process feelings and experiences through talking, as most adults do. Their natural language is play; when adults join them and speak that language, we will see the most significant levels of engagement, connection, and growth.

The benefits of play are nearly endless. This post will focus primarily on the power it can have in the learning process with regard to both academic and social-emotional learning. More specifically, it will focus on child-led play, arguably the most challenging kind of play for an adult to engage in. Child-led play requires following the child's lead completely, only stepping in when there is a risk of harm. This is the absolute best way for an adult to enter the child's world, and it can require significant self-control on the part of the adult. True child-led play means the adult is not directing, correcting, or asking questions. They are simply observing the child, reflecting on what the child is doing, and joining them in whatever that may be.

When choosing to engage in this kind of play with the goal of helping our children to learn, there are five characteristics we should look for:

First, the play should be joyful. This can look different for different children, but we all know it when we see it.

The play should also be meaningful, which will come naturally if it is child-led. A child with the freedom to play how they choose will only play in a manner that is meaningful to them. This includes sorting, stacking, and other types of play often considered repetitive or "restrictive." If a child is doing it, there is a reason, and we can do wonders by respecting that.

The third characteristic, which will also occur naturally in child-led play, is actively engaging. This can be difficult to balance when using traditional ways of incorporating learning into play, and techniques for supporting this balance will be discussed later.

Next, play for learning should be somewhat iterative. Again, if play is meaningful to a child and brings them joy (which it always will be if it's child-led), they will repeat it in some way, so this one doesn't require much work on the part of the adult.

The last characteristic, which can look slightly different for our autistic children, is socially interactive. This is not to say that all play should be socially interactive- children need time alone just like adults do. This means that for optimal learning to occur, there will typically be another person playing with and supporting the child. This can sometimes require extra work for the adult, especially when the child seems completely content playing independently, but child-led play makes it quite a bit easier. If you are trying to play with your child, and they seem to be wholly absorbed in their own world, join that world! Let's say a child has been sorting blocks for fifteen minutes with no end in sight. Instead of taking the blocks away and prompting them to make a different choice, join them in the sorting! Sort in the same way they are, sort in your own way, and maybe even combine some of their sorting with yours. When you join their world, there will be some social interaction, and the more instances a child has of positive social interaction, the more likely they are to be open to it and seek it out in the future.

Above all, the goal is for the child to be fully engaged, which happens much more easily if we are engaged with them.

To introduce concrete ideas to enhance your play with your child and support their learning, it is important to mention two things: mistakes and messes. Simply put, they are both important aspects of learning and development, and how adults react to them can significantly impact a child's ability to handle them in the future. When we make a mistake and are able to remain calm, talk it through, and problem-solve, our children will be more likely to do the same. One of the best things we can teach children is the importance of mistakes and the role they play in our growth, and we can do that through modeling. Similarly, with messes, it benefits our kids to involve them in the clean up after a spill, modeling both regulation and the technical skills required for cleaning. That said, we all have different tolerance levels for both mistakes and messes, and those levels are likely affected (negatively or positively) when children are involved. Your ability to tolerate messes says nothing about you as a caregiver or teacher, and it is very beneficial to understand yourself in this area. If you are dysregulated due to a mess, your child will pick up on that, and the play will be affected, so only apply this principle when you feel you're in a good place to do so- no one is able to model these skills every time they make a mistake or a mess.

Jean Piaget, a Swiss psychologist, and pioneer in the work of child development, once asked, "What is the goal of education? Are we forming children that are only capable of learning what is already known? Or should we try developing creative and innovative minds, capable of discovery from the preschool age on, throughout life?" While "what is already known" has great importance, I think most caregivers would agree that what we ultimately hope for in our children is the latter- creativity, innovation, and a thirst for discovery. The following phrases are small language shifts that can be made while playing with children to enhance their learning and encourage their development of things beyond what is already known.

The first is not an exact phrase but a general shift that can be made. When engaging in child-led play (again- not all play will be child-led, nor should it be. These tips are specifically for when you decide to set aside some time to follow your child's lead), try switching some of your questions into "I wonder" statements. For example, instead of asking, "What does a cow say?" when playing with farm animals, try "Hmm. I wonder what this cow sounds like." This approach is because asking questions puts you in charge, even if only slightly. As soon as we ask a question during child-led play, we place a demand on the child, exit their world, and drag them back into ours. Switching to "I wonder" will still cause the child to think about what the cow sounds like, allowing them to respond to you as they please. Remember- our goal is to keep the child engaged. One "I wonder" phrase that can help a child learn to make predictions and understand cause and effect is "I wonder what will happen next" or "I wonder what will happen if you put that block there." These phrases are great because they invite the child to consider what consequences their actions will have and allow them to decide what to do from there. "If you put that block there, I think the tower will fall over," while likely well-intended,  ultimately takes away an opportunity for the child to learn from a mistake, and they are likely to make that mistake again in the future.

"What are you doing?" Depending on how it is asked, this question can have many different meanings, only one of which is actually wondering what the other person is doing. The truth is if we ask someone what they're doing while in their presence, we can typically see exactly what they are doing, and we are actually either wondering why they're doing it or wanting them to stop doing it. Because of this, it often has a negative connotation. A switch to make when playing is "What's your plan?" This removes the blaming tone and makes the question a little more collaborative. Additionally, it might help the child stop and think about their plan.

The final switch to be discussed is the classic line, "Because I said so." There are variations of this line, such as "Because I'm an adult," "Just do it because I asked you," and so on. While many of us likely only use this when we feel frustrated, it is important to consider the message this sends, especially for our autistic children. Because they are often taught using compliance-based practices, it is crucial that we help them understand why they are being asked to do certain things. The goal should be to help these kids learn to advocate for themselves and speak up when something doesn't feel good or right to them. The more we can explain to them why they are being asked to do things, the stronger their sense of self will be, and they become less likely to follow along with things simply because an adult "said so."

Finally, let's explore different types of play and the learning opportunities that come with them. First, and understanding your personal tolerance for messes can be important here, is sensory play. Think sand, water tables, shaving cream, etc. Depending on the child's age, the benefits of sensory play vary greatly. For young children, it can help them discover their own sensory preferences and supports early exploration of the world around them by helping them become familiar with different materials. You can help them explore science concepts such as gravity and volume as they get older. It can also assist in developing motor skills such as digging and pouring.

Dress-up and role play provide opportunities for children to be silly and creative, but they also support children in making sense of the world around them. A common example is children who are nervous about going to the doctor or the dentist wanting to play doctor and act out what is going to happen to them. A more concrete skill that is developed through this kind of play is the technical skill of getting dressed.

Building things with blocks, LEGOs, Magnatiles, etc., helps to encourage problem-solving, spatial thinking, and logical reasoning. When we allow our children to make mistakes and struggle to figure out how to make the tower taller, we help them develop the abovementioned skills.

Outside play has many benefits. It gives children the space to explore, take risks, and increase their resilience. Gross motor skills such as running, jumping, skipping, and climbing can also be practiced during outdoor play. There are also many opportunities to explore earth science and biology concepts using natural surroundings and to teach respect for the environment.

Cooking is another wonderful learning opportunity. Many math and science concepts can be incorporated, including measurement, addition, and reactions. It fosters independence when a child can help out in the kitchen and is an opportunity to practice important safety skills (think knives and hot stoves). We can develop in children a deeper appreciation for food and how it's made so they better understand the work that goes into every meal and snack they eat. Research also shows that involving children in meal preparation can significantly reduce picky eating.

There are infinite ways to enjoy playing with your child, and only a handful are listed above. It is important to remember that children will learn facts and academic skills in their classrooms, among other things. When given the privilege of entering your child's world through play, enjoy being there, and try not to worry about teaching them academics in that setting. You can support them in developing their confidence, resilience, and creativity by using some of the techniques discussed in this post. Above all, know that one of the greatest gifts you can give your child is simply being with them, and that alone will have a significant positive impact. 


Elisabeth Dawkins, M.S, LPC-Associate is a Licensed Professional Counselor-Associate training in Clinical Play Therapy at The Stewart Center at The Westview School. She received her B.S. in Psychology from the University of South Carolina, Columbia, South Carolina, and her M.S. in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from the University of St. Thomas, Houston, Texas. She has previously worked as an Upper Elementary teacher at The Westview School from 2016  to 2020. Elisabeth is a certified provider of DIRFloortime®. If you or your family are interested in learning more about the services The Stewart Center provides, visit us online at The Stewart Center

This blog post was adapted from the presentation given during WestviewEDU on Thursday, October 6, 2022. WestviewEDU is an education series presented by The Westview School for parents and caregivers of children with autism spectrum disorder. For a full list of WestviewEDU sessions for 2022/2023 academic calendar year, visit The Westview School online.