by Mary Staub, M.Ed., BCBA, LBA
Independent play skills do not always develop naturally and sometimes must be taught. One way to teach independent play skills involves breaking play into a doable schedule in which the child receives reinforcement for completion of the activity. Some ways that independent play can be encouraged in the home involve using “play bins” in which a single mastered play activity is put in a bin and an activity schedule is made to signal what the child is to complete before earning reinforcement. All materials can be things that you already have at home and that the child would typically have access to so that the presence of designated bins can be faded out for more naturalistic play.
Following are steps on how to use in the home:
- Observe child with toys and activities to find out what they enjoy playing with and what they can engage in independently.
- Obtain a storage bin/bag and label it with a number 1.
- Place ONE play activity inside of the bin/bag.
- With your child, use a piece of paper, notes on an iPad or tablet, phone, etc. to make a “play schedule”. If the child can read, you can simply write out the individual play activity. If the child has not yet learned to read, you can draw (to the best or your ability) the play activity or use premade photos (Google, etc.).
- Ask the child what they would like to do when done with the play activity. This can be written or drawn at the very bottom of the play schedule. This should serve as reinforcement for completion of the play schedule. As a reminder, something is only a reinforcer if it increases the target behavior. In this case the target behavior is completion of the play schedule.
- Give the child the instruction to engage with the activity on the schedule. For example, if the activity on the schedule is a puzzle, say, “Do the puzzle.”
- Breaking down the steps necessary to complete the entire play schedule might be necessary (see task analysis below).
- Prompting to complete the play schedule might also be necessary and that is OKAY! When prompting, we want to begin with a least to most prompting hierarchy so that we can prompt at the level that is the least intrusive necessary.
- Once the child engages in the full play schedule, provide social praise and reinforcement that was decided upon at the start of the schedule.
- After the child is independently engaging with and completing 1 item on the play schedule, we can increase to 2 activities on the play schedule. You can have as many as you would like and however many the child is compliant with. Remember, even those this is structured play; we want it to be fun!
Teaching the use of a play schedule can be useful for increasing independent play and can also be a tool to use when your child might not have immediate access to parent/adult attention and must engage in an activity independently. An example of when this might be useful could be when you are in the kitchen cooking or need to make a phone call and cannot play with the child.
Task analysis teaching steps:
- Child sits at the table
- Child points to/names the first activity on the schedule
- Child gets up and obtains the bin/bag with the corresponding numbered activity
- Child returns to the play area/table
- Child completes the activity
- Child returns all activity materials to the bin/bag
- Child takes the bin/bag back to the original area
- Child returns to the play area/table and crosses activity off the play schedule