Play is a child's work. It is through imaginative play that children process and integrate the social and cultural information that they experience. The social learning that happens during play lays the foundation for social communication and emotional regulation skills that become important for getting and keeping a job, and maintaining close healthy relationships throughout life.
The imaginative games that children play equip them to read and intuit the feelings of others, laying the groundwork for the development of authentic empathy. For children on the autism spectrum, the ability to take the perspective of another is one of the most important challenges.
Cognitive development progresses through stages of grouping information, or schemas. As new information is encountered, it must be fit into an existing schema or a new schema can be developed. For example, the "cat" schema may include house cats, lions, and tigers, but when your child sees a weasel with catlike paws and whiskers, they must process and integrate that it does not fit into the "cat" category.
April is Autism Awareness Month, so it is worth mentioning that for children on the autism spectrum, imaginative and cooperative play may not come naturally. Adults can scaffold play by including neuro-typical children, interactive manipulatives, a well organized environment, visual supports, and a consistent routine.
An example of how prosocial behavior is supported by cooperative play can be seen in a simple game of "hot and cold". One child must hide an object and then encourage the other child to locate it by encouraging them with "hot"as they get closer to discovering it and "cold" as they get further away. This interaction requires perspective taking (I know something my friend does not), social exchange (I offer verbal prompts which affect my friends movements), and central coherence or situational appropriateness (I can give hints but should not reveal the answer because it would ruin the game).
Children process their experiences through imaginative play. You can support your child's development by engaging them in make believe! Remember to let your child take the lead in setting up the scenario and be flexible about rapidly shifting rules and roles.
Aaron Weintraub, MS runs child-centered social skills groups with a focus on children and teenagers withPervasive Developmental Disorder, Asperger Syndrome, High Functioning Autism, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, and Shyness. Strengths-based approach in a community based setting. Groups available in Tolland, Mansfield, Willimantic, Hartford, Vernon and Coventry Connecticut.