When Your Child Doesn’t Play With Others, by your Behavior BFF


By Leanne Page, M.Ed, BCBA

bSci21 Contributing Writer, and your “Behavior BFF”

When we hang out with my friends who have kids- my 3-year-old son just hangs out by himself talking about the toys. He doesn’t play with toys with the other kids. I don’t want him to stand out. How do I teach him to play? How do I play with him? Help!

It’s perfectly okay for your child to want to hang out by himself sometimes, but if you want to increase his opportunity to engage with other kids- you CAN teach him how to play!

Some parents like to get down on the floor and act silly with their kids (my husband I and both fall into this category) while others are more comfortable talking with their kids and aren’t naturally inclined to make a fool of themselves by acting like a toddler.

The importance of play for early learning and childhood development has been researched and well documented. This is my excuse for wearing cat ears while typing this. I swear my daughter put them there.

We know play skills are important but are they teachable? Isn’t play something that just comes naturally to some kids? The short answer is: play IS teachable.

How can you get your kiddo to play more? Here are a few ideas. Remember, these are not my original ideas or opinions. These are backed up by decades of behavior analytic research. Give one or all a shot!

1) Modeling

Simply put- you demonstrate how to play, then encourage your child to do it.  Let’s say you have a toy horse. Make the horse gallop across the floor while making clopping noises with your mouth. Make it neigh. Make it jump on your child’s lap. Then hand the horse to your child, and say “Your turn” or “You try it” or the like.

2) Positive Reinforcement

When you want your child to engage in play with others, set up a simple contingency so they know what’s expected of them and what they will get as a reward. Example: “First play blocks with Bobby, then you can read books by yourself.”

3) A More Structured Positive Reinforcement System

Reinforce playing with others in increments of time.  Start small, then increase gradually. “Play with friends with one minute, then you can ___(do a puzzle, whatever)___.”  Next time do 2 minutes, 3 minutes, etc.  You can use a timer and let your kiddo choose what they want to do when the timer is up.

You might say “These are all great and everything, but what do you want me to actually do when playing with my child? Playing is not second nature to me.”  Here are the Behavior BFF dos and don’ts of playing!

DO: Watch other kids the same age as your son or daughter to get ideas.

DON’T: Be a creep at the park or play space staring. Try to be discreet, please.

DO: Leave your pride and insecurities at the door.

DON’T: Worry what others will think about you acting like a horse. Or a cat. Or a butterfly. Not that I’ve already been all these things before 10 am today…I don’t know what you’re talking about. 🙂

DO: Make animal noises, silly faces, and big hand gestures. Yes to this: “Neeeeeeiiiiigh!” while galloping around the room holding a toy horse.

DON’T: Recite facts. How boring is this: “This horse is black. Horses live on farms. They make a whinny noise. Sometimes people ride horses.”

DO: Encourage your child to copy you. Flap your wings and fly around the house. Tell your child “Follow me. Flap your wings. Let’s fly!”

DON’T: Stop when your child starts doing something with you. Play WITH them. Don’t just model for them. Do it together and have some fun!

DO: Just go with the flow.

DON’T: Always use play time to teach pre-academic skills. Use it to teach imaginative play and interact with your child. 

Play is important. We know that. Quit being a grown-up for a while and teach your tiny person how to have silly, goofy, embarrassingly toddler age-appropriate FUN!

Playing is backed up by tons of research. Here is a small sample about teaching play skills. Use it as an excuse to act a fool with your littles- it’s fun!

Buell, J., Stoddard, P., Harris, F. R., & Baer, D. M. (1968). Collateral social development accompanying reinforcement of outdoor play in a preschool child. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis1(2), 167.

Charlop-Christy, M. H., Le, L., & Freeman, K. A. (2000). A comparison of video modeling with in vivo modeling for teaching children with autism. Journal of autism and developmental disorders30(6), 537-552.

Cooper, J., Heron, T., & Heward, W. (2007). Basic Concepts. In Applied Behavior Analysis (2nd ed.) pp. 256-260. Columbus: Pearson.

Ginsburg, K. R. (2007). The importance of play in promoting healthy child development and maintaining strong parent-child bonds. Pediatrics119(1), 182-191.

Hoch, H., McComas, J. J., Johnson, L., Faranda, N., & Guenther, S. L. (2002). The effects of magnitude and quality of reinforcement on choice responding during play activities. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis35(2), 171.

Stahmer, A. C., Ingersoll, B., & Carter, C. (2003). Behavioral approaches to promoting play. Autism7(4), 401-413.

Please let us know what you think about this article in the comments below, and be sure to send Leanne parenting questions for her next article!  Also be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!

Leanne Page, M.Ed, BCBA has worked with kids with disabilities and their parents in a variety of settings for over 10 years. She has taught special education classes from kindergarden-grade 12, from self-contained to inclusion. Leanne has also managed a center providing ABA services to children in 1:1 and small group settings. She has extensive experience in school and teacher training, therapist training, parent training, and providing direct services to children and families in a center-based or in-home therapy setting. Since becoming a mom, Leanne has a new mission to share behavior analytic practices with a population she knows needs it- all moms of littles! Leanne does through her site parentingwithaba.org and through her book ‘Parenting with Science: Behavior Analysis Saves Mom’s Sanity”.

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4 Comments on "When Your Child Doesn’t Play With Others, by your Behavior BFF"

  1. Love this article. I teach early childhood special education and have previously worked in grades kindergarten through 5th. Play interactions between adults and children are so important in children’s development. It frightens me that technology devices are taking play time away from children. I often hear parents talk about buying their 4 year old an Ipad or how good their child is at playing a game on their phone or he knows how to work it better than I do. Screen time removes children from face to face interactions and creative imaginative play that is the foundation for learning. Thanks for the suggestions for parents of how to play. I often forget that all adults are not comfortable with playing and acting silly with their baby, toddler, preschooler, and/or child.

  2. In some cases, the toys other children are playing with may NOT have value (i.e., conditioned as potential reinforcers) for your child. Therefore, as a parent or instructor, you will have to condition those toys to have value. That is, you will need to pair each toy (neutral stimulus) with known reinforcers (e.g., singing favorite song). Over a short period of time, as you are playing with the toy, and the child even reaches or touches the toy, begin to sing the song. ONLY do this for very short period of times (e.g., one minute). Or, if the child moves away, do NOT force the child to come back to you. In a few days, I will post the entire contingency on Tucci Learning Solutions’ website. Click the menu DOWNLOADS, locate the contingency “Worksheet – Conditioning Neutral Stimuli as Reinforcing Stimuli”.

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