Pretend Play Basics

Pretend play is probably one of my most favorite skills to teach. Teaching a child to pretend opens up a world of options, as play is no longer dependent on having specific toys or materials. You can also sneak in so many sub-skills!

  • Motor imitation
  • Verbal imitation
  • Cognitive flexibility
  • Commenting
  • Reciprocal communication
  • Parallel and Interactive Play
  • Independent play

Tips for a successful pretend play session:

  • Make it fun! Look like you’re enjoying it!
  • If the activity itself is not yet reinforcing, keep the rate of reinforcement high
    • Praise, tickles, fun interactions, quick access to preferred items (bite of snack, sticker, etc.).
    • The harder the demand, the higher the magnitude of reinforcement!
    • For kids who can tolerate a bit longer, provide extended access to a preferred item/activity AFTER play is complete.
  • If the activity itself is not yet reinforcing, keep reinforcement high-praise, tickles, and quickaccess to preferred items (bite of snack, sticker, etc.). The harder the demand, the higher the magnitude of reinforcement!For kids who can tolerate a bit longer, provide extended access to a preferred item/activity AFTER play is complete.
  • Keep the momentum going
    • Transitions through actions should flow quickly, like dominos falling. If you need a minute to think, tickle the child/ engage in an interaction that the child enjoys a bit longer or continue with the current step as you determine your next step.
  • Personalize the play, so that demands match kids’ abilities; as they breeze through lower-level demands, sporadically (just 1 or 2 at a time) add slightly higher-level demands between mastered demands.
  • Aim to have the child imitate your actions, not follow your verbal instructions. Quickly fade verbal prompts, so that play can appear and feel natural.

Steps to teach verbal and motor imitation:

  1. Engage in an action (run, dig with hands, bark, etc).
  2. Use the following prompting order: Natural cue > wait 15 seconds > repeat natural cue> gesture > verbal (only for verbal imitation) model > partial physical > full physical
    • USE THE LEAST OBTRUSIVE PROMPT NECESSARY!
  3. Praise any attempt at imitation:
    • Low magnitude praise for prompted responses.
    • If imitation was not independent, after success with other actions/words/sounds, provide another opportunity for the child to get it right!
    • Super duper high praise for correct and independent imitation.
    • If the child is off task (touching unrelated items, elopes, aggresses), block access, repeat demand, use prompting and reinforcement strategies above.

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