Social play for children with autism

Can a playground be designed to increase the ability of children with autism to play with others?  Researchers say yes. 

Children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) rarely interact with others in free play situations.  For example, Lord and Joyce MaGill-Evans found in 1995 that children with autism showed fewer peer interactions than children with behavioral disorders and typically-developing children, and made fewer social initiations than the other groups.  Little changed over the next 10 years.

In 2005, a group of researchers in England hypothesized that if they built a new playground specifically for the needs of children with ASD, it would increase the frequency of children playing with each other.  So they built a new playground for a group of 5-11 year-old boys with autism, with the intent being to educate in a segregated setting.


The new playground featured a circular ‘railway’ track with ‘road’ crossing points designed to foster pretend play and to give the boys an opportunity for repetitive play with motivating themes. They chose this particular pretend play environment because the children really enjoyed it.  The researchers found that in this new play area there was a significant increase in group play and a moderate decrease in solitary play.

It is because of research like this that the authors of the Inclusive Play Design Guide stated that the inclusion of social play elements in a playground is as important as physical and sensory play.  Social play allows children to practice communications skills, share, collaborate and interact with others.

In addition to pretend play, The Inclusive Play Design Guide recommends the following types of social play activities be included in a playground:

Cooperative Play—The best example of cooperative play is a seesaw, which takes two people to make it work.  There is no way to play on a seesaw solo.  Playing on a seesaw also seesawencourages eye contact between the two players, which is an important skill for children with autism to develop.  The seesaw is also much simpler than a game—with minimal need for reading social cues and body language.

Social Interaction—Social play is an activity where everyone is playing together, but not web-climbernecessarily relying on one another.  In social play, children are often learning from their peers as they play.  A great example of social play is a Web Climber.  Many different children are climbing at once.  Younger children can watch older children to learn how to get higher on the web.

What types of social play activities do you enjoy on the playground?




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