Making Room for Play | Organization for Autism Research

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In this week’s blog post, a teacher and mother to a son with autism discusses the power of play. This piece was originally published on Jessica’s blog, Changed for Good.

Ben won a tiny toy shark from the treasure box at school the other day. As soon as we got home, he announced that he wanted to play with it in the bathtub. I convinced him to put the shark in a plastic container filled with water (aka “ the ocean”) instead so I could get going on dinner. As I chopped vegetables, Ben wandered into the kitchen and asked if he could put a shark tooth in the water. Absently, I said yes. Then, in the background I heard a whole dialogue unfolding centering around the shark losing his teeth to the depths of the sea. After many trips back and forth to his room, the tub quickly filled with a pile of shark teeth, other plastic ocean creatures, and some shells from the beach.

“Did you know a shark is a fish?” he asked me during one of his many trips into the kitchen. “Their teeth are very sharp.”
And, later, I overheard, “Look- it floats. What else can float on the water?”

As I glanced over, I suddenly realized that Ben had created his very own sensory bin. Ben is seven now, so we haven’t had sensory bins around for quite awhile. I used to make them for him when he was three and four years old, and he certainly had plenty of opportunities to explore these back during this preschool years.

Ben is a first grader. He attends a private school that offers more choice and creativity than most schools do these days. However, I know that his day is still mainly filled with reading, writing, and math tasks. He enjoys school and he loves to learn. Sadly, this was not always the case.

We are currently living in an era that is pushing more rigorous academics on children at increasingly younger ages. As an educator, I watch it happen every day. I also watch many children’s after school hours fill with extra-curricular activities and additional tutoring to help them catch up and close the learning gap. I’ve had parents requesting tutoring for their children starting as early as PreK. In addition, kiddos like mine with special needs often spend their after school time in additional therapies, such as OT and speech.

There is a saying that play is the work of childhood.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the place in a child’s world for pure, unstructured, play.

Play with no rules and no agenda.

Play that is unhurried, simple, and pure.

Ben is the master at this type of play. I protect this precious time in our day because, even though it may not appear academic or rigorous at first glance, I know its value.

Who are we to say when a child (or adult, for that matter) is too old for play? Ben may be learning to read, add, and subtract, but he still needs time to get messy, create, and explore…just like he did when he was four. If anything, he needs it more now than ever.

Here are five reasons why I believe in the power of play:


1. Playing builds creativity

Tonight Ben and I blasted off into outer space on his bed. Yesterday, his bed was a table at a five-star restaurant where he served me food from all over the world. Play allows Ben to use his imagination and build flexible thinking. Plus, it’s fun!


2. Playing builds strong oral language skills

Ben’s imaginary play adventures usually come with a story complete with impromptu dialogue for all participants. Long before Ben was able to hold a pencil, I taught him how to tell stories. We would weave tales together, “One day, Ben set sail on the high seas. But then, a pack of huge, angry sharks attacked the ship….” When I tell stories with Ben, I always try to use rich vocabulary. He loves to use words like gargantuan instead of huge, and it makes our stories grander, more suspenseful, and just plain hilarious!


3. Playing allows for creative problem solving

So often I hear Ben working through social issues through his play. After reading “Charlotte’s Web” as our bedtime story, I overheard him pretend cooking “wild pigs”, while talking to his “pet pig”. This was obviously helping him to come to terms with eating meat, an issue Ben worried about throughout the read aloud as Wilber grappled with the fate that pigs face. Ben loved Wilber’s character, but he also loves his bacon. By distinguishing wild pigs from pet pigs, he was coming to terms with this concept in his own mind.

I’m grateful that play and exploration can take a front stage in his life. I believe that these opportunities to play, without an agenda, and without direction from any grown-ups actually have huge academic and social benefits.


4. Playing builds perseverance

Ben loves doing projects that he dreams up from his imagination. His crayons, scissors, tape, paper, and other supplies are easily accessible on his writing table. He uses these materials to create projects all the time, with no direction or prompting from me. Often he gets an idea in his head, but making the idea become a reality can be a challenge. Tonight he wanted to wrap a piece of paper into a tube shape and tape a quarter into the viewing area. Then, he wanted to glue to tube so it projected from the paper in 3-D. The finished product looked something like an elephant’s trunk with a quarter for a nose. Ben used to get very frustrated when he couldn’t get things to work just the way he wanted them to (such as when his train tracks wouldn’t connect just right), but these days he’s learning to work through these minor difficulties without big tears and frustration.


5. Playing builds an enthusiasm for learning

Ben feels a lot of pride and satisfaction in his projects. I let him hang his artwork on the walls of his playroom and pretend it’s an art gallery. He loves taking me on tours, and charging me a quarter to view his masterpieces. Ben loves to create, explore, and invent. I don’t tell him to do this- he comes home eager to get started. Sometimes when I call him to dinner, he’ll say, “I’m working!” and he truly is. I can think of no work that is more important.

About the Author

My name is *Jessica, and I have an eight year old autistic son named *Ben.  I have changed our names to protect his privacy.  In addition to being a mom, I have spent the past fifteen years teaching elementary school and serving as a literacy coach.  My writing offers my perspective as a parent, but I do not and cannot presume to know how it feels to be an autistic person.  I seek Ben’s consent and input when publishing stories about him because his viewpoint matters.  With that said, each autistic individual is unique.  This is our story, and we hope by sharing it, others can learn and grow, but keep in mind that each person’s experience will be different.

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