How to Make Learning Fun, With Play!

By Lily Stadlober, BCBA

Over the past week, COVID-19 has forced us all to rapidly and dramatically change our daily routines and lifestyle. On Wednesday the Prime Minister announced that schools, colleges and early years settings will be closed until further notice. For many of us, this means that our children will be learning at home for the foreseeable future. While schools are doing their best to ensure children have access to learning materials at home, as parents, we will need to support the learning of our children as much as possible, which may seem like a daunting task. 

There are many different ways that children learn. Some learning takes place in a structured environment such as a classroom. However, a proportion of our learning takes place outside the classroom through our interactions with different people and activities. One way we can facilitate learning at home is through play, and the bonus is, children don’t even realise they are learning!

Throughout play, children learn a range of important social and developmental skills, including:

  • Social skills such as turn-taking, joint attention and sharing experiences
  • Imitation skills, for example, copying the parent putting a shape in a shape sorter
  • Language development, such as making different sounds or commenting on what is happening
  • Understanding cause and effect, such as pushing a button to make something pop up
  • Problem-solving, for example, working out how to manipulate a shape so it fits in a shape sorter
  • Imagination, such as pretending a pot and spoon are a drum or making a cake in the sandpit
  • Fine and gross motor skills such as pushing and pulling, opening and closing,  and twisting and turning
Making Learning at Home Fun for Kids

It is common for children with autism or learning difficulties to have delays in play skills. They will often engage in repetitive actions and may be less willing to explore new toys or activities. We as behaviour analysts often hear “they aren’t interested in anything,” or “they don’t like playing with toys”. As a parent, it can feel disheartening that your child is not wanting to play with their toys and is not having fun. So, how can we as parents and educators support the development of play? Below are 6 top tips on how you can make play a great learning experience, whilst also having lots of fun!

Making Learning at Home Fun Tips:

  1. BE SILLY! Exaggerate your actions and dramatize your language. This may feel over the top and unnatural at first, but like anything, the more you do it the easier and more natural it becomes. Don’t be surprised if your child doesn’t join in or appreciate your silly gestures to start with – it may take several tries with several different toys. The key is persistence. If they have a toy they already like, this can be a good place to start. Practice exaggerating some new actions and language with your child and that toy, then try the same with different toys. Words like “wow!” or “look!” and pointing when something happens can be a good way to get your child involved.
  2. ROTATE. Change around which toys are available to your child. Like any of us, if we have the same thing all the time we can become bored. If you put some toys away and bring out some new ones for your child to play with, they are more likely to show an interest. This can be something as small as rotating which trains are on a train set or switching a doll’s clothing. If your child really likes a particular toy, see if you can find something similar to bring out. For example, if your child really likes building blocks, you could try introducing Duplo blocks or stacking cups. If your child likes playing with toy animals, perhaps you could try an animal puzzle.
  3. COPYCAT. One of the many skills your child can learn from play is imitation, or how to copy the actions of others. A great way to model this is to copy the actions or sounds that your child makes while playing with a toy – show them how to imitate. This is particularly fun if you have more than one of a particular toy (e.g. trains, cars, pretend food). For example, if your child puts their car down a ramp and says “brum brum” put your car down the ramp and also say “brum brum”. If your child crashes two cars together, crash your two cars together.
  4. MODEL. Show your child different actions that they can do with their toys. For example, if you are playing with blocks, show your child how to stack the blocks and knock them over. If you are playing with a toy that makes sounds, show your child how to push the buttons or levers that make the sounds. If you are playing with a jack-in-the-box, show your child how to wind it up to make it pop. You can also imbed language into play. The more words and sounds you can include the better! For example, you could say “zoom” if you’re playing with a toy car, “woof” if playing with a toy dog or “toot-toot” if playing with a toy train. You could make slurping sounds whilst pretending to drink tea. Be a chatterbox and model all types of sounds during play.
  5. SAY, SHOW, DO. This rule is handy when teaching any new skill, including during play. The first step is to say what to do. For example, you might say “put the car down the ramp”. If your child does not understand, the next step is to show them how to do it by modelling. In the above example, you would then put the car down the ramp to show them what you mean. If they still do not understand, you can help them to do the action by placing your hand over theirs and helping them to put the car down the ramp.
  6. PRAISE. This is arguably the most important step. We all like to receive positive feedback when we do well and children are no different. When your child pushes the car down the ramp for the first time, makes a “woof” sound, or even just picks up the shape sorter, make a big deal of it. Make sure your child knows that you are happy about it by smiling, cheering, clapping and praising them with statements such as “woohoo, you did it!”.

By far, the two most important things to remember are to persist, and have fun!

Lily Stadlober - BCBA

Lily Stadlober - BCBA

Lily is passionate about empowering individuals to lead meaningful lives at First Bridge Care Centre, London, UK - through the application of behavioural science. She is a Board Certified Behaviour Analyst and has over six years of experience working with children and adults with autism, intellectual disabilities, learning difficulties and challenging behaviours across home, residential and educational settings.