How To Improve Play Skills In Autism With A Shoebox

Teach Young Children with Autism to Play Using a Shoebox

How do you teach young children with autism to play? They may need some direct instruction if they do any of the following. A shoebox can help!

  • Look at a toy and touch it, then walk away.
  • Use a toy inappropriately.
  • Play only with the same toy over and over.
  • Instead of playing, just lining up the cars/figures/blocks.

These students need 3D play all the way.

Why does using a shoebox improve play for young children with autism?

Shoeboxes can help increase play skills for students with autism because they:

  • can be set up so that the play steps are visually apparent. Hook and loop strips help the kids see where they need to move the figures.
  • easily show when play is done since a hole at the end makes the pieces disappear.
  • help keep some of the toys stable to make manipulating the other toys easier for students with OT issues.
  • keep visual symbols stable in spots where they can be connected to the play skills being taught.
  • Also, they store all of the pieces nicely.  Just a little benefit for you.

So you have an excuse to go buy a new pair of shoes! Just joking, but be sure to save some shoeboxes. We like for our materials to be pretty, but our students will learn just the same if you use an old shoebox like those in the photos.

How do I make a shoebox play task?

Observe your students with toys. What level of play skills do they have? The Westby Play Scale is a great tool to use.  We want our students to develop symbolic play, where one object is used on another in play.  This skill helps to develop the symbolic cognitive level that lets students realize that words and symbols stand for the real objects.

  1. Start with a set of common play figures and a toy that your student has shown interest in. 
  2. Watch how children with neurotypical skills use that toy. Select an easy part of that play sequence that can be shown visually.
  3. Get a shoebox big enough to hold all of the important pieces on top. Make sure the box top is not busy. If so, use a solid color paper or contact paper to cover it up.
  4. Line up the pieces so they will move from left to right (to reinforce pre-reading skills.)
  5. Use hook and loop tape to show how the pieces will move.
  6. Cut out an all done box at the end for the figures to end up in. Don’t do this step if the final goal is to have the figures placed on the toy.
  7. Give it to a child or helpful friend without explaining it. Can they figure out what they are expected to do? If so, hurray to you!

How do I start teaching shoebox play skills to my young students with autism?

Just take out two figures to start: one for modeling and one for the child to move.

Go through the play step with your piece. Make sure your student is looking at what you are doing. If the child doesn’t have joint attention skills, you will need to develop those first.  No verbal language! The student is working on moving the pieces and words can be distracting.

Use the shoebox for any language that is part of the play. In the photo, you can see how a ‘wait’ sign is being used.

Push the shoebox in front of the child and see if they can do the same step. If there are multiple steps needed, you can backward chain the sequence by teaching only the last step. For example, in the photos above, you would start with one figure on top of the slide. Then all the student has to do is pick it up slightly and let it go down the slide.

Increase the number of play steps, then the number of figures as the student learns the task. Then work on fading the box out of the play routine if the child’s ability to manipulate has improved with practice.

When the child has learned to play with the figures when they are taken off the shoebox, you can vary the play. For example, have your student play with figures on a sliding board that is part of a bigger toy.

Shoebox play for the playground

Scrounge around for playground toys and figures that go with them if you don’t already have them. If you are lucky, you may find some inexpensive pieces at flea markets and yard sales!

Your main playground piece goes in the middle.  Leave room for 3-5 figures to fit on the box as if they were waiting in line to play.

After you have them placed, cut out a box at the other end for the figures to exit into. Having a visually clear ‘all done’ is SO important for working with ASD students, as it makes new tasks less overwhelming for them.

If the set up is clear visually, your students should be able to either imitate your model or move the figures with hand over hand physical prompting. This is not a following directions task!

Once your students show that they have the idea, fade-out whatever prompts you were using and then the shoebox, as well!

Are you interested in finding out about more shoebox play tips? Sign up for the LLL newsletter to receive a FREE helpful download about how to set up shoebox play for the core word ‘eat.’ 

Shoebox Play Idea Kit

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Add in language that tells about the play skill!

When your students know the play skills, it is time to add the language. The first step is using photos of your play sequence. Photos make great adapted books and are a wonderful way to add language to play.

Then move on to different play sequences. Adapted books and file folder sentence activities are my preferred way to go!

Don’t worry about adapting the toys with hook and loop tape, since your students who with appropriate play skills can still use them. They may ask you at first why there is hook and loop on the toys, but then they ignore it.

WARNING: Don’t do what I did and store the pieces with hook and loop in a hot attic. You get a sticky mess! 🙁

autism, speech therapy, token boards, first/then, visual schedules, special education

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I’m Linda, an SLP who loves helping you build effective communication skills for your students using strategies and visuals. Pictures are time consuming, so let me make your life easier!

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