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May 24, 2024

Learning Through Play: How Kids Choose Who (and What) to Be

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Explore how children learn social skills through peer play, differentiate between behaviors & benefit from ABA therapy in enabling positive social interactions.

kids learning through play

Learning Through Play: How Kids Choose Who (and What) to Be

Have you ever watched your child playing with friends and noticed them mimicking each other’s actions? Tag! You’re it! And one child chases the other around the playground. This is perfectly normal! Peer play is a crucial social learning ground where kids experiment with different behaviors and see what works. But how do they decide which behaviors to copy? Let’s dive into the world of imitation in peer play, exploring how children discriminate between appropriate and inappropriate behaviors, and how ABA therapy can support this development.

Monkey See, Monkey Do: The Power of Imitation

Children are natural mimics. From a young age, they observe and copy the actions, words, and even emotions of those around them. This is especially true during peer play, where kids act out different scenarios and social roles. By imitating their peers, they learn valuable social skills like taking turns, sharing, and expressing themselves clearly.

But Wait, There’s More! Sorting the Good from the Not-So-Good

While imitation is a powerful tool for learning, it’s important for children to understand what behaviors are appropriate to copy. Imagine a scenario where a child sees a friend throwing a toy truck in frustration. While they might be tempted to imitate this behavior, they also understand (hopefully!) that throwing toys is not okay. Here’s where a crucial skill comes in: discrimination. Discrimination, in this context, refers to a child’s ability to differentiate between acceptable and unacceptable behaviors witnessed during play.

The Secret Weapon: ABA Therapy and Social Skills Classes

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy can be a game-changer for children who struggle with social interactions and appropriate play behavior. Through ABA techniques, behavior analysts can help children:

  • Identify appropriate play behaviors: Therapists can create scenarios where children are exposed to different behaviors and then guide them towards identifying which ones are “good” choices to imitate while playing with friends.
  • Develop social communication skills: Learning to take turns, share, and express needs are all crucial for successful peer play. Through role-play and by providing in-the-moment feedback, ABA therapy can provide targeted interventions to teach these essential skills.
  • Practice positive social interactions: Behavior analysts can create opportunities for children to practice social skills in a safe and controlled environment. This allows children to experiment and receive positive reinforcement for appropriate interactions, which leads to an increase in appropriate social behavior.
The Takeaway

Imitation during peer play is a natural and important part of social development. By helping children discriminate between appropriate and inappropriate behaviors, we can empower them to navigate the social world with confidence. ABA therapy offers a valuable toolkit to support this process, fostering positive social interactions and strong social skills.

Remember, this is just a starting point! Here are some ideas to expand your blog post:

  • Does your kid push other kids to gain their attention? They may have seen that this is successful when observing other children in their class or on the playground. Aggressive behavior such as pushing or hitting is one of the most effective ways for a young child to gain attention. However, it is not appropriate and may lead to isolation and a tough time making friends.
  • To ensure appropriate imitation skills, parents should give lots of praise and attention for appropriate bids for attention such as when a child uses verbal communication skills or taps a peer on the shoulder. Adults should continue to model appropriate social behaviors they want their child to imitate and set their children up on playdates with other children who display healthy play skills or who have lots of friends. 
  • ABA therapy teaches appropriate replacement behaviors for BIG emotions displayed by children. This often leads to an increase in successful social interactions for the child as the BIG emotions decrease and are replaced with functional communication skills. 
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