Tips for Teaching Students to Play Independently

Independent Play in Special EducationI've shared a lot about how I love to teach my students to play independently and with peers without adult support. First, this is an amazing functional and social skill. Second, this allows classroom staff to run groups with other students while some students are playing appropriately and safely. 

⁣I want to start by saying that this process takes TIME, patience and a lot of reinforcement! Many of our students have spent much of their academic lives with a teacher or para glued to their side prompting them, so we have to work on fading these prompts during play time (and really the entire school day!). 

Here's how we structure independent play time:

•During free choice/ play time, we encourage students to play independently or with peers. We are open to either, but our big goal for this time is for students to learn to play safely and appropriately without staff support. ⁣

•We set up play activities at 1-3 tables, depending on the time of day. We include activities like cars/ trains, variety of building materials, make believe cooking, etc. I focus on picking activities that students are interested in and will be motivated to sit and attend to. I store the play materials in labeled drawers and I switch the activities weekly. 

Independent Play in Special Education

•Each table is marked with four colored squares. We started the year with laminated squares that were glued to the table, but those obviously didn't last 😂 So now our squares are drawn onto the table with colored permanent markers. Students must be sitting at a square at a table at all times to have the toy/ activity. If all 4 spots are taken at a table, then students must pick another table with an open square/ spot. This year, students are allowed to move from table to table freely whenever they want. However, in years past, I have had to set a timer for students to prompt them to stay at a table for longer periods of time and to keep them from going from table to table every few minutes. 

Independent Play in Special Education

Independent Play in Special Education

•Of course we have to start the school year (and honestly, most Mondays) by having staff regularly sitting with students at the tables and modeling how to play appropriately. Our job is to teach our students how to deal with conflict, share, take turns, etc. with peers and then be able to remove ourselves!⁣

•We gave frequent reinforcement for appropriate play at the beginning! Students were constantly get stamps/ stickers on their charts, verbal praise, skittles, you name it, the first few months while we taught them the desired behaviors. ⁣We continue to give reinforcement for positive independent play, but it is not as frequent as at the beginning of the year. 
What questions do you still have?! Is teaching your students to play without adult support something you’re interested in trying or are you already doing it?