Playing to Learn
Does teaching young students to play improve their academic skills in school?
A child’s preschool education includes everything from play skills to social skills and classroom behaviors. For children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), however, it can be especially helpful for their preschool curriculum to focus on social communication (using language within social interactions with peers and adults) and attention-related skills (focusing on a topic for an extended period of time). Research has shown those two areas can help lay a foundation for future success in learning and language (Coolahan, Fantuzzo, Mendez, & McDermott, 2000). Therefore, a group of researchers decided to study a preschool program designed specifically for young children with ASD called the Advancing Social-communication and Play (ASAP) intervention.
What is ASAP?
ASAP is a program that uses social play (‘playing house’ and other imaginative games) to teach joint-attention (sharing the same focus on a toy or activity as another person) and social communication skills. These are two areas where students with ASD often need extra support, and improvements in these skills lead to improvements in academic and language skills over time. The ASAP play-based activities are designed to be done 1 on 1 with individual children as well as with larger group settings.
The researchers wanted to study how well teachers could be taught to use ASAP in their classrooms and if the students would have improved academic performance after participating in the program. This would allow them to understand three things: 1) if ASAP was a program that worked well in the classroom setting, 2) if ASAP helped special education teachers feel positively about their curriculum, and 3) if the program was particularly beneficial for students with ASD.
To answer their questions, the researchers worked with teachers in 78 classrooms, which equaled a total of 161 students participating in the program. Half of the teachers were taught to use the ASAP program in their classrooms and the other half were taught a “business-as-usual” (BAU) intervention for comparison. Teachers assigned to the BAU group received no training and continued with their standard curriculum while teachers assigned to the ASAP group attended two trainings for the program. Both ASAP and BAU teachers participated in the study for four years. Finally, teachers and parents completed a series of questionnaires and surveys about each students’ language and behavior with teachers completing an additional survey on their own attitudes towards the ASAP intervention curriculum.
What did they find?
Ultimately, the researchers found that students who participated in the ASAP program did not perform better in social- and attention-related areas when compared to the students in the BAU classrooms. This means that ASAP does not appear to be an effective program for improving social communication and joint-attention skills for children with ASD. However, the students who participated in the ASAP program did demonstrate higher levels of engagement, such as participating in classroom activities and needing fewer directives to ‘stay on-task’ during their preschool lessons. Additionally, ASAP teachers reported slightly more positive attitudes towards their curriculum when compared to the BAU teachers.
What does this mean for my student?
Although the researchers did not find that ASAP improved students’ use of social language and joint-attention skills, they did find some benefits. The structure of the program was particularly engaging for the young learners and teachers. This study adds to a growing body of research that suggests play-based therapies and programs are a captivating and fun way to teach students many valuable things.
Boyd, B. A., Watson, L. R., Reszka, S. S., Sideris, J., Alessandri, M., Baranek, G. T., Crais, E.R., Donaldson, A., Johnson, L., and Belardi, K. (2018). Efficacy of the ASAP Intervention for Preschoolers with ASD: A Cluster Randomized Controlled Trial. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 1-19.
Coolahan, K., Fantuzzo, J., Mendez, J., & McDermott, P. (2000). Preschool peer interactions and readiness to learn: Relationships between classroom peer play and learning behaviors and conduct. Journal of Educational Psychology, 92(3), 458.