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How to improve cooperative play for neurodiverse children

Does your child have difficulty playing cooperatively with other children?

Does your child want to play their way all of the time?

Is your child inflexible in play?

Two plastic toys setup as if they are playing together

Similar to last week's blog post about Taking Turns, this week we address Cooperative Play and Switching Lead for children with autism, ADHD or other sensory processing disorders.

Neurodiverse children learn a lot from their peers. Teaching them how to play with other children at a young age by fostering a positive play experience will help them for the rest of their life with social interactions, communication and emotional regulation.

Follow this step-by-step protocol to teach cooperative play. By practicing this activity a few times a week your child will learn to follow another person's lead in play and engage in a positive way.

Goal: For the child to follow the direction of a play partner during imaginative play and stay actively engaged in play for up to 10 minutes.

Materials: Wig, scarf, sticker or similat generic item for the leader to hold (if needed) and a timer (if needed)

Rainbow colored popsicle sticks

Procedure for the structured practice sessions:

  1. Have an item that represents to the child that whoever is holding that item is the leader of the game. The other child has to follow the imaginative game that the leader directs.

  2. As soon as the adult says "switch" the item gets passed onto another person and then the child has to follow them.

  3. Explain the activity to the child/children using visual aids, social stories and simple language. You can model the game on how to play cooperatively and taking turns first. By demonstrating how to take turns, share and engage with a play partner your child will know the positive social behaviours expected.

    1. If neded, use a timer in the beginning to set a clear signal for when it's time to "switch" (e.g. after 1 minute)

    2. As soon as possible, fade the use of the timer and vary the time that children are following each other.

  4. Start the timer for 30 sec to 1 minute.

  5. Allow your child to lead the play first. Tell them that it's their turn. Ask them "What should be do?" and follow their play.

  6. When the timer goes off tell them that it's your turn (or the other child's turn to lead) and give them the item for the leader.

  7. Start with short periods of time that the child has to follow another person's lead (e.g. 30 seconds). Then, slowly increase the time to 1 minute, 2 minutes, etc...

  8. If the child doesn't follow, provide physical and gestural guidance to help them follow the play.

  9. Praise them for following even if they are being prompted.

  10. Keep play and turns fast paced and engaging for the child.

  11. Have fun! This game is not about fairness so it's okay if the adult or peer's turns are longer than the child's turns, and if playing with multiple people the child can "skip" their turn.

  12. This helps to emulate the naturally occurring responses and interations when children are playing together.

Six children playing with blocs together

A couple of extra tips: Be mindful of sensory stimuli in the play environment, such as noise levels, textures, and smells. Offer sensory-friendly materials and activities, allowing children to engage with their senses in a way that feels comfortable for them.

Provide prompts and cues to guide the child through each step of the activity initially. Gradually fade prompts as the child becomes more independent.

This structured practice session will be beneficial for your child to have positive social interactions and to build friendships at daycare or school. This protocol can be practiced with neurotypical children, older children and other adults for your child to generalize their newly learned play skills and to be able to take turns in a wider array of situations.

If the thought of imaginative play draws a blank page in your mind, book a complimentary call with our Behaviour Therapist to discuss ideas of imaginative play and your child's behaviours of concerns.


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