Early childhood is a critical period in life. The first five years of children’s life is when a substantial part of development takes place. The experiences children have in these years have a direct effect on the adults they will become in the future, thus, emphasizing the importance of early childhood education. Early childhood education is often based on play which facilitates children’s development and fosters association with greater cognitive and language skills. Play provides a scaffold for education and motivates children to be more curious and independent. Moreover, appropriate play behaviors elicit different skills from children such as greater social and communicative skills. Considering these reasons play-based learning is a pivotal component of early childhood education. In addition, play can be highly beneficial for children with developmental delays such as Autism Spectrum Disorder(ASD) which causes considerable developmental issues regarding play-based learning. This essay will explain the definitions of play-based learning and ASD and will demonstrate the existing variations of play-based learning for autistic children as opposed to non-autistic children, as well as the play models which are beneficial for autistic children.
The notion of play has been around for as long as the history of children. In Plato’s Republic (350 BC) the greek philosopher asserts child’s play as an essential component of learning through experiences (Ebbeck & Wanigaranayake 2010, p. 34). Furthermore, play has officially been a part of early childhood education since Friedrich Froebel established kindergarten 150 years ago (Saracho & Spodek 1998). Froebel preferred a highly teacher directed curriculum, while Macmillan, a following pioneer in early childhood education, chose a more flexible form of play in her nursery school. Saracho and Spedek further state that Maria Montessori also infused play in her early childhood curriculum, however, she extracted her essential guidelines from children’s natural play and as opposed to Froebel selected a more independent style of play (1998). Consequently, the early childhood curricula of Friedrich Froebel and Maria Montessori were highly diverse in terms of educational outlines. Later on, the occurrence of the reform kindergarten movements and modern nursery-school movements facilitated the acceptance of children’s natural play as an avenue for learning. Although none of these systems acknowledge play to be the only way to educate children, all of them advocate children’s organic play as being educationally worthwhile (Kieff 2000, pp45-7).
According to the Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF)(2009, pp. 2-3) of Australia Play-based-learning is a “context for learning through which children organize and make sense of their social worlds, as they engage actively with people, objects, and representations”. The national institute of mental health defines autism spectrum disorder (ASD) as a condition affecting perception and social life by impacting the brain, therefore causing difficulties in socializing and communication. Repetitive and limited patterns of behavior are key characteristics of children with ASD. Autism spectrum disorder begins in early childhood and later on leads to social problems disrupting function in school and at work. The first symptoms of autism are observed within the first year. A small percentage of children develop normally in the first year and eventually experience a period of regression between eighteen and twenty-four months when they more progressively develop the known symptoms (National institute of Mental Health, 2005).
Children with autism demonstrate substantial differences in their development of play compared to non-autistic children. They are particularly object focused and less involved socially with other children (Kasari et al. 2012). Play skills are evidently delayed, namely the development of a symbolic or imaginative play. Symbolic play is when children use objects to represent other imaginary objects without being led and stimulated to do so. Non-autistic children begin this play at the age of two whereas children with autism attain this skill later on in life (Perucci et al. 2012). Moreover, ASD children show less varied and unstimulated symbolic play, have less interest and spend less time engaging in it. Symbolic play is also considered to be associated with other cognitive and language skills emerging in later stages of life. Research suggests that children with more advanced symbolic play skills have more developed language and cognitive abilities (Chang et al. 2006). However, studies show that children with autism are more likely to engage in functional play during early childhood with less consistent development of symbolic play (Kasari et al. 2012). Functional play is a type of play where a child plays with a toy in the context of its intended function, and symbolic play is a play where children imagine a toy to be something other than what it really is (2012).
As mentioned, play has an essential role in developing motor skills, perception and socio-intellectual skills and ASD influences play and its development in children affected. Many autistic children lack the ability to play in a way that is essential for their development; consequently, early interventions to improve this key component of development has been implemented. Integrated Play Groups (IPG) and Floor Time are two well-known strategies used to increase beneficial play in autistic children (Wolfberg & Schuler, 1993). IPG model targets to benefit ASD children aged three to eleven with improving their social and symbolic play. This model generally focuses on fostering and nourishing the intrinsic desire to play in children. Research shows that the IPG model results in higher rate of functional and social play and use of toy (1993). On the other hand, the floor time model concentrates on the relationships created between children in preschool autistic children. This model creates an environment that is supported by adults and directed by children and results in the expansion of play themes for autistic children and assists children in building relationships. In further research Wolfberg (1999) reports that children who engage in floor time model for at least two years showed substantial improvement in all components of development.
In conclusion, play-based learning is a significant aspect of early childhood education especially for children with autism spectrum disorder, as it enables children to learn through experiences and further develop their social skills. However, as stated above autistic children face difficulties in different types of play such as symbolic and social play. This essay has explained the definition of play-based learning and autism spectrum disorder, a historical overview of play-based learning and has compared the playing abilities of autistic and non-autistic children. Furthermore, two play based learning models were introduced which effectively increase autistic children’s ability to play. It can be concluded that considering autistic children’s deficits in play and the essential role play has in development of social, cognitive and linguistic skills, additional focus should be placed on the importance and development of play in these children. In the research conducted only two play models were found to improve the play skills of autistic children, therefore further models should be the center of attention of future research done in this area to introduce new avenues to improve autistic children’s playing skills.