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Puppets, Play Therapy Can Improve Social Skills, Speech for Children with Autism
Playing with puppets is an excellent way for children with autism and other special needs to practice spontaneous, imaginary, and symbolic play, which can help bring children who think concretely into the world of abstract concepts and ideas.
Play dates can enhance social skills, emotional awareness, and learning, and symbolic play can take learning a step further by enabling kids to take part in scenarios to help them understand how the world works.
Children with low verbal skills often undergo intensive verbal behavior analysis, speech therapy, and even oral motor exercises. These therapies are often successful to various degrees, but playing with puppets can also bring out speech development and help kids use what they have learned in a natural environment.
In one class, some children spoke more during puppet play than during all other times combined. Emotional engagement and motivation are factors that contribute to potential increases in speech for certain children.
Imitation and joint attention, two skills used in play therapy, have been shown to be early indicators of how well children with autism will learn language and other skills. Joint attention occurs when children use eye gaze or gestures such as pointing to communicate with others.
Children can use imaginary play to communicate non-verbally through joint attention used during play. They can also begin to use words meaningfully, through emotions rather than through rote memorization.
Several studies have shown that symbolic play skills are associated with language abilities in children with autism.
The late Dr. Stanley Greenspan, founder of Floortime, wrote in his book Engaging Autism that emotion is critical to early language and cognitive development. “We believe the primary problem in individuals with autism spectrum disorders is a biological difficulty in connecting emotion to motor actions and later to symbols,” Greenspan wrote. “Emotions link different types of mental functioning.”
When children are motivated and emotionally engaged, they are more likely to generalize skills learned, or use them in a real world environment.
Playing with puppets can foster creativity, which is important for students who receive a steady diet of structured behavioral therapy. Imaginary play can encourage engagement, facilitate interaction, and promote the development of abstract thought.
Creative play using puppets and stuffed animals can help children learn in a spontaneous way, which is invaluable because in life kids will have to often react on the fly instead of always having structure as a crutch.
Humor and pretend play can help children generalize what they have learned so they can use it socially, and in meaningful ways in natural environments.
By role-playing with puppets or stuffed animals, kids may also be able to improve their ability to experience empathy, or theory of mind – the ability to understand what others might be thinking.
Another benefit of playing with puppets can be an improvement in fine motor skills as kids use their hands to control the puppets.
Children may need a jump-start in acting out with puppets and stuffed animals, but once a facilitator begins activities, a goal should be for children to create ideas in a spur-of-the moment-fashion as much as possible. Therapists and parents can also follow the child’s lead because the child’s actions provide a window into the way he or she thinks, and what motivates the child.
Below is a list of potential activities to start with when facilitating play with puppets. There are countless scenarios that can be played out. Puppets these days can be very realistic, but most kids already own stuffed animals that can be used as well. Many similar activities can be done with other toys.
- Take an animal puppet and have it pretend to “bite” the child. Give the animal a timeout. Have the animal apologize. For the long version of a humorous routine, click here. (Note that for children who bite other people, this may not be the best scenario unless you use it as a learning tool to have the puppet talk about its feelings as a replacement after initially “biting” another puppet or person).
- Have the puppets cheer each other up when one is “feeling sad.”
- Sit the puppets in a semi-circle, pretend they are students and have the child pretend to be the teacher.
- Set up the puppets at a table and sing “Happy Birthday” to them. Bring in a pretend cake and have one of the puppets blow out the candles.
- Have the puppets order food and then eat.
- “Whisper” to one of the puppets to chase one of the kids. Have the puppet look at the child, then look back at you, pausing dramatically before chasing.
- Have some of the puppets ask the kids to take photos of them, especially if two of the puppets look alike and could be mother and son or brother and sister.
- Make the puppets participate in the “Hokey Pokey.”
- Have the puppets go to sleep.
- Make a face and tell the puppets they have bad breath and have them to brush their teeth.
- Throw one of the puppets into a box. If you miss, say, “Ouch!” and tell the puppet it should have worn a helmet.
- Have one of the smaller puppets shake and be afraid of one of the larger ones. Have the smaller one stand up for itself to the larger one.
- Slowly with anticipation put your finger near an animal puppet’s mouth and then all of a sudden recoil, pretending that it bit you. Pretend to be afraid of it.
Remember that spontaneous play is unstructured so it can be a challenge to transition back to structured activities after playing with puppets. In addition, many kids with autism have a hard time controlling their emotions, including positive feelings, so they may get overly excited and have a hard time calming down.
For these reasons and also because pretend play can be used as an incentive for finishing other play date activities, it may be best to leave puppets to the end of a play date.
As children get used to the idea of pretend play, they will gradually become better at creating scenarios, but they may first need to be prompted by facilitators.
Playing with puppets can help children understand symbolic play. Puppets can help kids learn to be spontaneous, and the engagement, interaction, and joint attention that arises from play therapy not only improves social skills, but can even in some cases spur language development.