Why is Play so Important within ABA Therapy? Learn from a Hopebridge BCBA
October 29, 2018
October 29, 2018
Ralph Waldo Emerson was quoted as saying, ‘It is a happy talent to know how to play.’ At Hopebridge, we intend to make sure every kid has the opportunity to do just that, and according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), it seems we’re onto something.
The AAP recently released a clinical report that highlights the benefits of play as it relates to child development. According to the study, ‘Play is not frivolous. It enhances brain structure and function and promotes executive function (i.e., the process of learning rather than the content), which allow us to pursue goals and ignore distractions.’
While this news is not a surprise for our Hopebridge therapists – we’ve been working it into our autism therapy for years with data to back up its success – we’re happy to see we’re in good company with the AAP.
But what does it look like through a therapeutic lens? As part of our blog’s education series, we turned to Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) Lauren Nappier out of the Hopebridge Westerville center in Columbus, Ohio to talk about the significance of play within Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA therapy).
Kids swinging in a gym, participating in board games and chasing each other around the room: this might sound like recess, but here at Hopebridge, it’s all part of therapy. It seems like a dream for many – and it is! – but the fact is, children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other developmental delays may not come to us with the most functional play skills. The more we can get them involved in activities they enjoy, the more we are able to teach and build upon these skills.
The benefits of play in therapy for kids with ASD are exponential and its effectiveness is invaluable. Here are some things we like our parents to know about the use of play within ABA therapy:
Play makes therapy possible because kids don’t realize they’re working!
If children are having fun, they don’t necessarily know they are working towards a goal.
It creates an opportunity for natural reinforcement versus more contrived motivators.
If we’re teaching through play, then play itself becomes a more positive and reinforcing experience, therefore they will want to engage in it more frequently. This also allows for a longer duration of teaching sessions. Other traditional methods, such as work table time, are also important but may not provide as many opportunities because the learner could lose interest more quickly.
It increases generalization.
Play time enables our kiddos to generalize most anything we’re working on, especially communication and social goals. We’re able to mimic so many things that arise in their daily, natural environments. The skills we teach through play are often more easily transferred outside of the center with classmates and siblings.
Play opens up their worlds.
By playing within therapy, we’re able to broaden the variety of environments and activities in which they can use later in life.
It helps build social skills.
Recreation increases the opportunities to interact with peers, which in turn aids in building more socially acceptable skills.
It enables a kid-led learning approach, versus therapist-led.
Certain ABA teaching methods, such as Natural Environment Training (NET) or Pivotal Response Training (PRT), capitalizes on the child’s choice. If the learner is naturally motivated by activities or stimuli you’re playing with, they are more willing to participate.
The great thing about play is that it can be implemented anywhere, but Hopebridge centers are especially equipped for successful sessions. Our centers are set up to provide a variety of controlled environments, which often benefits therapy. These settings provide the same opportunities that also occur outside of the center, but in a safe space where we can better contrive situations. There are various environments within the home too, however variables are not as easily controlled and you might need to venture out to find a good spot for certain activities, such as gross motor play.
We use the entire center for play – from hide and seek and musical chairs in the large group room, to wagon and tricycle rides in the hallways. We find the play in every moment and every space; even taking part in it through games like Simon Says or Follow the Leader while lining up to transition from the circle time room. From the lobby to the back door, the environment is set up to lead their progress in play.
Hopebridge’s team also plays an important role in receiving the benefits from play. Our knowledgeable Registered Behavior Technicians (RBT) are trained to recognize that there are learning opportunities within every interaction. For instance, a teaching session masked as a game of freeze tag is actually meant to target increasing attention, turn-taking, following group instructions, imitation, joint attention and eye contact, among other goals.
Because ABA is a bit newer in the grand scheme of mental health, its practices can be misinterpreted. People who are not yet involved in it sometimes hear it is ‘rigid and un-fun.’ Little do they know, it is intended to be the most rewarding and amazing environment for the kiddos receiving our care. With one-on-one therapy and constant engagement, it encourages unstructured play within a structure. To a child, that can feel like they are playing all day.
For example, I might have in my mind that I want to approach imaginative play in the next part of the session, but what it looks like is based entirely on the kiddo. Each comes in with a unique perspective in the materials or area we use, and from there I run with pretty much whatever they have in mind. We follow the child’s lead, and if he or she picks up something we did not have in mind for therapy that day, we run with it anyway! It is flexible and fun.
Watching these kids and therapists during NET sessions is probably one of my favorite things to do in this job. I often challenge others: watch a session and try not to smile or join in – it’s impossible! If you’re there in the moment and it is being done the way it should be, you are going to want to participate. This is a time during ABA when it should be loud and boisterous and everyone is having a good time.
It’s through these moments that we see children blossom. Just this week, a child in one of our centers (who formerly did not pay much attention to others) began to play hide and seek with his RBT. Not only was he able to interact with others, but I watched him light up during it all!
For parents of children on the spectrum who may not have functional play skills, getting involved in play time can feel like a struggle and even awkward at times. We often hear, ‘he is not interested in anything I do,’ or ‘she isn’t playing at all.’
My advice? Don’t be afraid to get down and be a kid for a moment. Get on their level.
Imitate their noises or narrate what is going on around you. Talk to them about what it is you are doing, then start to bring in some of the toys that may interest them. Reinforcement is key. If they seem interested – even for a moment – provide lots of praise and attention. Model, model, model and don’t feel silly. The more interesting and entertaining learning is through play, the more fun they will have and the more likely they will want to join you.
Remember that ‘playing’ can be defined in so many ways. For some, it is big gross motor-type activities like spinning around, dancing, being chased or flipped upside-down. For others, it’s more solitary projects like arranging puzzles or blocks. What is play for one kiddo is not necessarily the same for another, so observe what they are interested in and choose to focus on that type of entertainment? Caregivers can use their child’s interests and preferences as tools to increase communication and practice requests during their ‘play sessions.’ Most importantly, have fun!
*Informed consent was obtained from the participants in this article. This information should not be captured and reused without express permission from Hopebridge, LLC.