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Teaching “play” that functions as Play

NBC Admin - Sunday, December 23, 2018

For our #dobetter theme in December, we focused on developing reinforcers and play skills better. The recording for this webinar and all of our #dobetter webinars can be accessed here for free! In the webinar, we discussed the difference between play and leisure skills and shared programs that we typically incorporate with learners to help build true play skills. Because this is an area that is not discussed often, we decided to dive in deeper on this concept of teaching “play” that truly functions as play. First, we will define play and then we will look at how to develop programming for clients based on their current play repertoire. For video examples and program examples, check out the webinar!

What is Play?

The dictionary defines play as a verb that means “to engage in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than serious or practical purpose”. When we look at programming for learners diagnosed with autism or other developmental disabilities who have skill deficits relating to “play”, we often see attempts to teach “appropriate play”. What is “appropriate play”? It simply means, the same types of activities that peers and the rest of that culture engage in with the same materials.

Within “typical” development, there are certain phases of play that tend to occur. Young babies often mouth items and explore them visually or with their hands and feet, rarely engaging with the item based on its intended purpose. Cause and effect play tends to occur next, which consists of manipulating toys (or anything really) and observing the effect that occurs. This is why so many toys for 6 months to 1 year olds involve lights and sounds and easy to push buttons or spontaneous activity that occurs from simply approaching the toy. As infants turn into toddlers, we start to see more functional play where items are used for their intended purposes such as pushing cars down ramps, building with blocks, putting puzzle pieces into puzzles, etc. Then, children engage in pretend play, which has many steps! We discuss this in a little bit more detail in the webinar from this month.

If the learners we serve do not engage in the activities described above and as they become teenagers and adults do not engage in the same type of play as their peers, does this truly mean they are lacking play skills? Or does it just mean that they are lacking skills to engage in the same patterns of responding and behaviors with toys and other materials as their peers? If the definition of play is simply “the spontaneous of activity of children” or “to engage in activity for enjoyment”, surely the learners we serve engage in activities throughout their day that would meet that definition and could therefore be called “play”. The issue is not that our clients lack play skills, the issue is that we are too narrow-minded to recognize their play behaviors. Just because lining up toys, watching the wheels of a car spin, viewing the same clip of a video over and over and repeating the lines, etc are not behaviors I or some other children would engage in for enjoyment, doesn’t mean that this isn’t play. To identify play skills, we need to ask ourselves, “is this person enjoying what he/she is doing?” “is this activity spontaneous?” as opposed to “does this responding LOOK the same as the responding of a same age peer”.

Now, this isn’t to say that teaching learners how to engage with toys, books, and other leisure activities is not an important skill to teach. It is a very important skill to teach to help individuals participate in the community and to structure one’s day. However, we can’t just teach the topography of play behaviors, meaning we teach a learner how to manipulate and engage with toys or other materials in the same way as their peers. If we truly aim to build PLAY skills, we need to make sure the programming we are designing meets the definition of play and is spontaneous and enjoyable.

During the webinar, we looked at some video examples of play vs not play. Just because a child is engaging with toys in the same way as his peers, does not mean that play is occurring. If the child is enjoying the activity, then it is play. If the child is not enjoying the activity, then it technically is not play, and that is Ok, but it is an important distinction to be made!

But, WHY? Understanding what activities truly function as play for the learner you are serving, is what will help you develop the best programs to help expand play skills. If you merely go through the motions and implement programs with the word “play” in them, without considering whether the learner is truly, functionally, playing, the learner will not benefit as greatly. It is also important to focus on this to make sure we don’t over attend to building “appropriate” responding at the cost of a client having access to true play. If a client engages in a wide array of activities that meet the definition of play discussed above, and we spend all of our time squashing those activities and trying to force the client to engage in “play” activities in the same way as her peers, we are doing a disservice to our clients and essentially removing access to enjoyment from their lives. If we conceptualize play based on the definition of play and the function it serves, we can ensure we are balancing access to true play with teaching how to engage with materials to participate in the community. If done well, as we are working on this, the “appropriate play” we are teaching may very well become enjoyable, and function as play!

Practical Application
In our webinar for this month, we shared programming examples relating to 3 different phases of play. To further conceptualize this, we created the table below. This table can be used to expand play behavior while maintaining the actual function of play. This table focuses solely on building play for the individual not on peer play or social skills.

*Click here to see a clearer view of this table
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Spotlight on Early Intervention Resources

NBC Admin - Tuesday, May 01, 2018

Spotlight on Early Intervention Resources

This month for the #dobetter movement, we focused on early intervention and how to intervene early better. We started the month with a video review of a typically developing 2 year old interacting with his mom with during intervention styles. A voice over explaining that video can be found on our YouTube page

Our webinar for this month focused on topics not covered in behavior analytic graduate programs relating to early intervention and typical development. We discussed the importance of focusing on the social components for autism and making sure skills are broken down far enough. This webinar will be available on our website by June of 2018.

If you would like to watch it for free in the meantime, check out our Facebook page where a post with the link can be found!

For our blog this month, we are discussing resources related to early intervention that all behavior analysts should be familiar with. There are many helpful websites and books and also decision trees that can be used when working with such a young population. It is our duty as behavior analysts not only to become experts in the science of behavior analysis but also the literature and resources related to the populations we serve.

Book recommendations

The following books are must haves if you are providing early intervention:
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Spotlight on Parent Training Resources

NBC Admin - Sunday, April 01, 2018

Train Parents Better

The #dobetter movement covered training parents better for the month of March. We started the month with a discussion of a video of an example parent training session. Check out the video here and add your thoughts! The Parent is Always Right webinar was well received and provided members with access to different resources and guidelines for providing effective and supported parent training. The webinar will be available for free until April 14th. Lisa Ozowara and Bethany Patterson conducted a Facebook Live resource share relating to parent training. The video can be viewed here

For our blog post this month, we are going to discuss different Parent Training materials that we have found improve our effectiveness in conducting parent training. We will start with some general parent training recommendations to consider for the work you do as a behavior analyst and then provide a brief discussion for how each resource can be used to improve your parent training process!

General Guidelines for Training Parents Better
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Assess Better - Put down the Cookie (cutter)

NBC Admin - Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Assess Better – Put down the Cookie (Cutter). Individualizing the assessment process
By Dr. Megan Miller, BCBA-D

The Feb theme for the 2018 Do Better Movement is Assess Better. We started this month with a video activity related to identifying skills to assess with an early learner. The Do Better community identified quite a few skills they would assess further. However, there was a general theme of relying on commercially available assessments for this process. In our webinar for Assess Better, we discuss in more detail the next steps we took in the assessment process for this learner.

The professional development activity for this month was a 3-hour webinar covering the topic of Assessment for learners diagnosed with autism. The webinar focused on describing a multitude of commercially available assessments for learners with autism, providing examples of ways these assessments can be used together to develop appropriate intervention, discussion of assessment in general and different resources to use for assessing skills that do not related to commercially available assessments, and reviewing some video examples. Currently, behavior analytic training programs both at universities and through supervised fieldwork seem to focus too much on training individuals to complete 1 or 2 specific assessments instead of training on the assessment process. Behavior analysts successfully developed very effective interventions for learners well before the existence of any commercially available assessments and it is critical to our field that we continue to develop skills related to this process. This webinar is available for FREE until March 13th, 2018 and can be accessed in our Slack Group #assessbetter channel and/or on Navigation Behavioral Consulting’s Facebook page found here. After the 13th, the Webinar will be available on our website:

For our assess better blog, we are talking about how to put down the Cookie Cutter and develop individualized assessments for our learners. I could probably write a whole book on this topic but for the sake of time, I have narrowed down the focus to a few key areas: observation, learn your population, familiarize yourself with resources available to you based on this population, and an example document of how we make use of the resources available to us.


When conducting assessments, it is critical that observation occurs PRIOR to determining which formalized assessments will be used with the learner and to help you pinpoint what may need to be assessed further. It is near impossible to know that the proper assessment process is being conducted with a learner if you have never seen the skillset of that learner. Observation can be done by viewing a few quick video clips of the learner when feasible or by observing the learner’s natural interactions when conducting the intake. During the observation, it is important to look for:
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Think Better - On How to Think Like a Behavior Analyst

NBC Admin - Friday, January 26, 2018

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Interested in becoming a BCBA?

- Thursday, December 17, 2015

Do you enjoy or are you interested in working with individuals with disabilities? Have you considered becoming a BCBA but not sure where to start? Read More

Being a Savvy Consumer

NBC Admin - Friday, September 25, 2015

This blog post was originally written in 2010. Read More

ABA vs Son-Rise

- Thursday, July 10, 2014

This was originally posted on our old website a few years ago: Read More

ABA Therapy with NBC!

- Friday, March 07, 2014

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Ethics Update from ABAI Conference - May 2011

- Tuesday, August 10, 2010
Every year at ABAI there are a few areas that are heavily focused on. This year ethics was one of those areas. The main point was that unethical behavior is starting to increase in our field and it is due to a combination of reasons: not knowing the expectations, not learning about the code of conduct, money, etc. Being a student of Dr. Bailey at FSU, Ethics is a very important area to me.  I don't want our field to return to where it came from. Read More