9 Things You Need to Know About Play (and Preventing Challenging Behavior!)

Many teachers say they are too busy to get down on the floor and play…others have been taught that it’s not appropriate to do so…some say they feel awkward or don’t know what to do.

Yet, helping children who exhibit challenging behavior to play creatively with materials, sustain engagement, and develop cooperative play skills can be transformative...and over time this often reduces or eliminates behavior problems. Really.



Over and over again I’ve seen examples of intentional support for a child’s play result in language spurts, increased attention span, social skills, friendships formed, and dramatic reductions or the elimination of the challenging behavior…sometimes even when the behavior was occurring at other times of the day.

 Curious? Read on…


 9 Things You Need to Know About Play (and Preventing Challenging Behavior!)

1. Children need 45-60 consecutive minutes of play time per day.

Play takes time. In order for children to really construct those block structures or build a spaceship of Legos or develop a pretend play scenario with characters and a sense of narrative they need time. And they need this time regularly. Daily. Ideally twice a day if you are full day program. They need some time to muck around, get settled in, experiment, negotiate - especially if it’s pretend play, maybe get the creative juices going. Sure some of them have trouble settling in – that’s a separate issue that I will address shortly – but for most children if you give them this time and space regularly you will see more developed play emerging over time. Think of yourself sitting down to write a paper for school, a lesson plan, or playing your favorite sport. If someone yanked you out of the experience after twenty minutes to switch it up you might feel like you were just getting started!

2. Children learn self-regulation and pro-social skills during play.

If we want children to control their impulses, follow the rules and routines of our classrooms, and be nice to others then play needs to be at the center of the curriculum. During play children have the opportunity to delay instant gratification or impulses and will be motivated to do so if they are really enjoying themselves because they want to sustain play with a friend. For many children this is much easier and more intrinsically motivating then waiting for a turn at show and tell or resisting the temptation to grab a cookie off the table. If they are invested in the play experience continuing they may be more motivated to “use their words” (give them the words, don’t assume they know which ones you mean) to communicate with a peer. They develop their attention spans and sustain engagement because they want to continue the activity and thus learn to engage in an experience for an extended period of time.

3. Play skills can be taught.

For some children developing the skills to form friendships and to play cooperatively with peers does not come naturally. Play skills can be taught both during play time as well as at circle time or other times of the day. For starters, teachers can help children learn skills like: getting a friend’s attention, asking for objects, and providing a play idea to a friend. The Center for Social Emotional Foundations of Early Learning (CSEFEL) has some tips for how you can teach social and play skills during circle time. Check out their 2-page What Works Brief for some easy-to-implement, great ideas: http://csefel.vanderbilt.edu/briefs/wwb8.pdf This website is dedicated to promoting children’s social-emotional development and preventing challenging behavior. It’s an excellent resource.

4. Teachers need to know the skills required for pretend play.

Typically we see children engaging in cooperative pretend play by the end of the preschool years. Pretend play is the hallmark of play during the preschool years (though it starts much earlier). For children who don’t play with peers or avoid the areas of the classroom that lend themselves to pretend play it can be helpful to think about, what skills do children need to play successfully with peers?  We can use role play to teach pretend play skills at circle time, as suggested in #3, however, we can also enter children’s play and teach play skills during play by modeling and prompting. I have found this to be tremendously effective as well as useful in decreasing the incidence of challenging behavior. Skills necessary for cooperative pretend play include: pretending with objects, taking on a role or acting out a one-sequence (and then many-sequences) pretend scenario, and talking on a role, and talking about the play (“let’s pretend we’re shopping”). Heidemann and Hewitt’s Play Checklist is a great resource for pretend play skills. Check out here: http://www.redleafpress.org/Assets/ClientDocs/play_checklist.pdf

5. DON’T teach children to say, “Can I play?”

Well, you can if you want to, but I strongly recommend against this. One answer to the question of “can I play?” is, of course….”NO!” And, you might think that there's a 50% chance that children will get “no” for an answer. But, what if it's the child who needs help to play with peers? The child who’s behavior you are concerned about? The child who has been knocking over other children’s block towers "for no reason" (maybe that's the only way they know how to get the other children's attention)? Well, this child probably has a greater than 50% chance of getting a “no!” response because who wants to play with someone who destroys things (or hits, or bites…)? This strategy does not actually help that child very much. Instead, teach them to watch what the other children are doing and then imitate the play behavior as a way to join in. This is what savvy preschoolers do on their own. 

6. In play children learn that one thing can stand for another.

I’m amazed how many early childhood teachers tell me they did not learn about this in their child development or early childhood education courses (teacher educators I'm looking at you with dismay). Knowing about symbolic thought can help you defend why you are prioritizing play in your classroom. Let me tell you why it is crucially important, in case you don't know. Understanding that one thing can stand for another is known as “symbolic thought”. When you pretend a circle of play dough is a pizza, a stack of blocks are a house, or motion with your hand suggest you are holding an imaginary cup, you are using symbolic thought. As it turns out symbolic thought is not just necessary for play but it is an essential concept that we use all the time when we are reading, writing and doing math! When we write the number “5” it is a symbol for the concept of five things. Likewise, written letters and words are symbols for spoken letter sounds and spoken words. We use the spoken word “ice cream” to refer to the actual ice cream cone. We can draw a picture of the ice cream cone as a visual representation – a symbol – for the real thing. We use the written word ice cream to stand in for the real deal (not quite as tasty!). So when we let children play they get to learn, understand and experiment with this concept of symbolic thought by pretending one thing is another without us explicitly teaching it. Instead, they learn a skill that is essential in learning to read, write, and do math naturally and experientially during play. How cool is that? Zero to Three does a great job of explaining why play is so importantly developmentally for infants and toddlers and address symbolic play at minute 3 of this short video… https://www.zerotothree.org/early-learning/play

7. Your state’s standards probably mandate that you teach play skills.

Yes. In terms of prioritizing play and defending why you do so to your administrators –and to children’s families – for many of you there is very good news: your state’s standards may be on your side!

I know you may be getting a ton of pressure to teach “academic” skills like letter recognition, letter-sound correspondence, and helping children write their names (all of which can be taught during play and also taught playfully but that’s a topic for another day). However, many state standards also explicitly say that by the end of the preschool years children should be able to play with peers! The Texas PreK Guidelines, for example, say children should be able to, “interact and communicate with peers to initiate play scenarios” and “talk with a friend to plan their play” (I was just doing a training in Houston so I researched this!). Basically, if you are a Pre-K teacher in Texas it is part of your job to give children time to play and help them do so.

 Thankfully, the early childhood guidelines in many states have similar guidelines.

The New York State PreKindergarten Foundation for the Common Core has a section on Theater Arts/Dramatic Play that says: “Participates in a variety of dramatic play activities to represent fantasy and real life experience” and goes on to reference “assuming a role,” “using props” (one object to stand for another!) and “acting out a story”. http://www.p12.nysed.gov/ciai/common_core_standards/pdfdocs/nyslsprek.pdf

Google your state’s “early learning standards” or “PreK standards”. Look for play and if its not there check out the sections on social-emotional or cognitive. You might be surprised by what you find!

8. The national early childhood special ed organization wants you to PLAY.

The Division of Early Childhood, Council for Exceptional Children says: 

“Practitioners promote the child’s cognitive development by observing, interpreting, and responding intentionally to the child’s exploration, play, and social activity by joining in and expanding on the focus, actions, and intent.” (INT4)

These are the folks who review all the research and come up with “evidence based” recommendations and they are saying you should support children’s play and help them expand it. And, they say to do this to promote cognitive development – terrific! So true (see #6 above on symbolic thought). Of course we know that helping children play will also help with their social-emotional development.  Got children with disabilities in your classroom? You can see the rest of the recommendations here (not in the most reader-friendly language, but good and important stuff): http://www.dec-sped.org/dec-recommended-practices No acting experience required! The method I use to support children’s play builds on the resources above, including the skills in the Play Checklist, which I teach in a very playful way. I call it “improv-based play support”.

9. The principles of theater improv can be used to support children’s play.

The first key principle of improv-based play support is is the idea that anything anyone says or does is an “offer” That means a child banging a block is an offer. Putting on a hat is an offer. Saying “I’m driving” is an offer. Making a car sound is an offer. Dropping something or making other mistakes? Also offers. The job of the improviser/teacher/player is to accept and build on children’s offers” – that’s principle number two: “accepting and building on offers.” What does that mean? It might mean accepting the offer of a child making a “vroom, vroom" car sound by also choosing a toy car and making a "vroom, vroom" sound. Unless the child protests, indicating they don’t want to be copied I often start by simply copying exactly what the child is doing for awhile. Then I might do something ever so slightly different – but very closely related to what they are doing – and see if they copy me. If they don't I might prompt them to copy me by saying something upbeat and fun like, “hey, try this!” In this way over time you can help expand the play. With more advanced players it might be that I enter the house corner and say "I'm hungry" if I see the child cooking. Here I am accepting the “offer” of a child cooking by doing a complimentary activity or action rather than imitating it. You may already do something like this instinctively when you join in children's play. For me it was tremendously helpful to adopt this lens of improv – looking for offers to accept and build on – and it enabled me to expand the ways I previously worked to support children's play in a way that was more powerful and intentional. You can learn more about how to do this and read examples in my article, Improvisational play interventions: Fostering social-emotional development in inclusive classrooms which was published in the journal, Young Children, by NAEYC in 2013. If you're a member you can access the volume 68 from 2013 for free, here's the full citation:

O'Nell, B. (3013). Improvisational play interventions: Fostering social-emotional development in inclusive classrooms. Young Children, 68(3), 62–69.

What, you're not an NAEYC member!? Well they just redid the pricing and its only $30/year so maybe you want to check it out: 


(No I do not get a kick back!) 

Did you find this helpful? Have questions? Want to learn more?  

Check out my conversation about play and challenging behavior with Ron Spreeuwenberg:

The Preschool Podcast, Episode 54. It’s on iTunes or check it out here (free!):