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Encouraging Your Child to Play

Updated: May 24

A child's set of hands stacking Legos together with other toys in the background

When we hear the word “play”, that might sound like unproductive leisure time– but is it? It certainly could be, but when we’re talking about children playing– chances are it’s beneficial for their development!

Through years of research, we know that play contributes to cognitive, physical, social, and emotional development of children of all ages (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2007). It also contributes to building self-regulation skills (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2018). Knowing this, here at Mindcolor we want to be able to provide children with the time to play, learn, and explore. 

So what should play look like then if we’re saying that play is good for child development?  Play will look a little different depending on age, current skills, preferred toys and activities, experiences in various settings, etc. There are different kinds of play too such as imaginative play which is when pretending takes place (e.g., pretending a block is a phone or even pretending their stuffed animals are friends), cause and effect play where they learn how things work (e.g., force acts on a tower and it falls over, legos click together and stick, ball starts on a steep incline and rolls down), and cooperative play (e.g., working together with peers and/or adults to solve a problem or acting out a scene). 

If your child has an autism diagnosis and doesn’t play in the ways you would expect or hope, that’s okay! This is an opportunity to learn to play with your child and even teach skills through playing! A common goal for children with autism is to increase functional communication and play is a valuable way to help your child practice this! Let’s say your child is working on requesting their favorite toys (i.e., cars/vehicles). You can create some repetitive play by building a ramp and sending the car down to land in a bucket. Before picking up a car, you say, “Car” and pick up a car to send down the track. Clap and cheer when it lands in the bucket. Repeat again by saying, “Car!” and picking up the next car. Perhaps on the fourth or fifth time, you can pause, look at your child and see if they will say “Car!” before you pick it up. If they do, you can either continue the repetitive play OR give them the car since they said “Car”! 

Using play as a means of teaching makes learning more fun and functional, but also provides positive moments you can cherish with your child for years to come! You can continue to learn more about your child through play while helping them to feel safe, stable, and part of a nurturing relationship (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2018). 

Regardless of your reason to want to embed yourself in your child’s play and encourage more of it, below are a few ideas that could help expand and capitalize on play in order to obtain the benefits you learned about above! 

  • Think about what your child chooses to do when playing independently. Are there items or activities you can expand upon from what you know they already enjoy? If they like spinning, are there toys that spin or they could spin with? If they like coloring or crafts, are there other materials such as new markers, stampers, etc. you could find? 

  • Think about videos or books your child may prefer. Are there items from those videos or books that you could find to play with? Maybe they like watching videos with toy figurines, could you find the same ones or similar? 

  • Allow them to look through a bucket of random toys and items and see what they pull out. You can be silly by putting a pan on your head and calling it a hat. Or stacking multiple things on your head until they fall down.

  • Having some semblance of a toy rotation can help make items feel more novel if they haven’t seen them in awhile. It doesn’t have to be a full toy rotation, but even if you pack up the Duplo blocks for a few weeks and bring them back out, it could have the effect of being new and exciting! 

  • Ask relatives, schools, daycare, etc. what your child likes to do when they are in the care of others – different settings could bring out different interests! 

A key contributor to why ABA therapy is so effective is because ABA therapy sessions incorporate a significant amount of play to ensure clients remain actively involved in their learning process! Applied behavior analysis utilizes and capitalizes on client motivation, specifically clients at Mindcolor, so play is highly effective in aiding in the child’s growth and development. The individualization of ABA not only refers to the goals and targets designed for your child, but also the structure and play incorporated into each session. At Mindcolor, we take pride in the high-quality services we provide that aren’t only just effective but fun for our clients as well! 

So if you try playing with your child or expanding their current play and it doesn’t appear to be effective, refer to the list above to see what other things you can try. Give yourself a break between different play times and try new things! Remember that in the meantime your child will continue engaging in their own unique play style which has its own advantages!

Vice President of Clinical, Quality and Outcomes at Mindcolor Autism


American Academy of Pediatrics. (2007). The importance of play in promoting healthy child development and maintaining strong parent-child bonds. Pediatrics, 119(1), 182-191. 

American Academy of Pediatrics. (2018). The Power of Play: A Pediatric Role in Enhancing Development in Young Children. Pediatrics, 142(3), e20182058. 



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