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Encouraging Imaginative Play

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Imaginative or pretend play is incredibly important for child development. Its innumerable benefits include letting children learn about the world, improve language processing skills, gain social skills, as well as improve their creativity, a skill they will need when they grow into adulthood. However, it can be difficult for children with autism to engage in this type of play. Keep reading for my tips and tricks for encouraging imaginative play!

Imaginative play was by far my favorite kind of play as a child. I would spend hours constructing forts with my sister and friends in our basement. The sectional sofa was probably a boat at least as often as it was a place to watch TV in my house. 

I’m very grateful for all that time spent playing and imagining. I can feel its influence on my still as an adult, and not just because I work with children on imaginative play.

I still like to invent stories in my head and imagine and expand on ideas from television shows and movies. It is why I write creatively, something which brings me much joy. 

So obviously imaginative play is an important thing to encourage our students to engage in for their development of social skills and creativity, but also for this ability to process language. 

I remember once going to my mentor and coworker to tell her I didn’t think I was helping a child learn to process language enough. She and the speech pathologists had been doing drills to improve this student’s receptive and expressive language skills. When I found out everyone else on the team was doing this, I was horribly embarrassed because I had not.

Ever the pragmatist, she asked what I had been doing.

That week I had brought a portable hula hoop to every session. (A very handy pretend play prop, click here to buy).

We had been trying to think of all the things a hula hood could be. That week it had been a window, a city bus, a pond for fishing, and most recently a boat. 

We would ride it to different parts of the playroom get out, pretend to climb a mountain (wall) and both shout different scary things we saw at the top of the mountain. Then we’d run back down to the boat pretending to scream in terror, before setting off for the next “mountain.”

I recounted this game to her, saying it was stupid. She stared at me and asked if I was insane. 

She declared, and many other experts would agree with her, that this was a more meaningful way to work on processing language skills than a drill because it was a real-world situation.

The student had to listen to me, understand what I was pretending to see, and respond. Not only that it was simultaneously improving his eye contact, expressive language, and encouraging physical activity. 

While there are drills that can improve on all those things, nothing beats pretend play because it gets down to all of them at once, while being so fun the student doesn’t realize they’re working on anything. 

Imaginative play or pretend play, is key to childhood development and has to be encouraged in our field, and we don’t talk about that enough due to the expectation that we are teachers, not playmates first, and the fact that it is difficult to get students to engage in.

However, the benefits are well worth the effort and even the raised eyebrows. 

Read on to learn my tips and tricks for integrating more pretend play into your sessions.

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Maybe you’re like me, and when you see everyone else on the team doing something more professional you think you’re just wasting time. Or maybe your students on the spectrum have no interest in pretend play.

Both are significant obstacles to encouraging imaginative play but are important and completely possible to overcome.

My fellow SEITs often call me a baby, because unlike many of them, I started out my career as a SEIT and never taught in the classroom.

Most of them transitioned to being a SEIT after having children and being classroom teachers for years. 

Don’t get me wrong. I love and respect them all, and many of them have become dear friends, despite the fact that I’m still a twenty-something (although not for much longer at this point). I am still the youngest SEIT on every team I’ve ever been a part of. 

Because of that, I tend to think differently, but the teams I have been on have not seen my youth as a weakness, but as something to enjoy. I think differently than the rest of them because I grew up in a different decade.

I’m not set in my ways, and still have an open mind to learn new skills, and techniques, and am willing to try different things. 

And as one of them put it, I don’t have knee problems so I can still get on the floor with the kids and do something more creative.

Instead of being ashamed of your inclination to be more creative in your session lean in and embrace it.

Your imagination brings something special to your team and should be shared with your students.

Also, other SEITs and supervisors worth their salt should know that pretend play is the greatest thing for childhood development, and if they don’t educate them.

Rest assured in the knowledge that the benefits of imaginative play are backed by research, and any way we have to get our children to engage in it should be encouraged and embraced.

This one is a different kind of obstacle because while the professionalism concern is probably more internal, this is an external force and one you cannot control. 

However, just because a child doesn’t seem to have any interest in pretend play, doesn’t mean it’s impossible to get them to do it. I think it just means you’re going about it the wrong way and you need to change your approach.

When I first tried to do pretend play with a child, I wanted him to give a bunch of small plastic dolls a bath. He had no interest for several reasons in retrospect.

  1. He was a boy’s boy and had never expressed interest in dolls
  2. That was boring and not fun
  3. I was making it about the goal of getting him to turn the facet on.

He did eventually learn how to turn the faucet on, but in a way that was more meaningful to his life. (It was when he wanted to wash his hands because there was paint on them). 

However, just because the first attempt was such a failure doesn’t mean I gave up. Eventually, I got this kid to play with me, but in a way that was more meaningful to him. 

He loved to run and be chased. One day, I decided to be a lion chasing him. He loved it and started roaring back. So we were lions chasing each other. 

The next day we were birds, snakes, and eventually crocodiles. That turned out to be wonderful because his OT wanted him to practice crawling among other animal walks. 

This pretend play game transitioned nicely into working on goals from PT and OT. Language is not the only area of growth that encouraging imaginative play can help.

Eventually, I was able to introduce other more complicated games. Not until after his pretending skills improved. We never bathed dolls, but we pretended the floor was lava, sailed on boats where he didn’t let me drown, and other classics.

This worked because the start was child-centered. 

Child-centered in general means it’s about the kid, what they want and where they are at, rather than what you want to work on. 

The example of giving the dolls a bath was not child-centered, but goal-centered. It was about turning the facet on.

However, the example of the animal chasing game was child-centered, because it built on the student’s present level of functioning and interests.

That student liked to run and he liked animals. He knew how to imitate different animals, and he knew how to be chased. It simply combined the two. Imitate an animal while pretending to be chased. 

It seemed simple, but it expanded his worldview and opened up the door to other kinds of pretend play.

To make a child-centered pretend play game, think of what your child’s interests are and present level of functioning and find a way to combine them into an imaginative game. 

A common piece of advice I give is to add on to something a child likes from books or TV Shows. 

Another student and I read Lumberjanes together. (Great comic series, check it out if you haven’t). 

He loved this part in the third book with ghost stories and wanted to read it again and again. 

It was a stim for him, but I switched it around and decided to make it a social activity. I suggested one day that instead of reading it again, we pretend to be the monsters from the story.

We took turns being a monster from the book and pretending to chase and eat each other. Then we picked a different monster after a while and were that one. 

It can be hard for kids on the spectrum to come up with their own ideas. They spend so much time caught up in the creative content of other people, whether it be Lumberjanes, Nintendo, Star Wars, or whatever else. 

Letting them use things that are familiar and loved can be a good way to bridge the gap. This works better than expecting something original right off the bat. 

Just make sure you keep changing the games often enough that they themselves do not become stims.

Encouraging imaginative play is vital for students on the spectrum. It can help them improve language skills that may be hampered by a processing disorder. To learn more about processing disorders click here.

Just make sure to make your approaches centered on your child’s wants and interests and remember to have fun. If you’re miserable, your student will pick up on that. Then they’ll think pretend play is something to be suffered through, rather than a joy. 

I hope this post has given you inspiration and that you are full of ideas about imaginative play!

Find me on Instagram and send me a message about what games you play! I’m so excited to hear!

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