Natural Environment Teaching: Incorporating Learning Into Play

Playing with your child provides a natural opportunity to teach them important skills. Play captures your child’s natural motivations and your child will love that you are down on the floor, being silly, and they won’t even realize that they are actually learning too!

Inset Puzzles

If your child loves inset puzzles, this is a great time to practice following directions, discriminating between pictures, labeling, and fine motor skills. When playing with an inset puzzle, set the puzzle in front of your child and give him/her one piece at a time. You can then provide the simple instruction such as “put in” or “match cow.” When your child does as you ask, showing your child you are excited by clapping your hands, providing verbal praise (“Wow! Great job matching!”), giving tickles, etc. are all ways to provide positive reinforcement. You can also label the different puzzle pieces so your child learns to associate the word with the piece.

Blowing bubbles

Blowing bubbles is a perfect opportunity to practice requesting and eye contact. When blowing bubbles, you can wait for your child to look at you before you blow. This reinforces eye contact. You can also wait for your child to request “bubbles.” This opportunity can be provided over and over again because the bubbles naturally disappear. You don’t have to remove the fun activity to practice more eye contact or requesting, you are just the giver of bubbles!

Coloring/ Painting

This is a great way to work on fine motor skills, but it is also a time to work on requesting and labeling colors. When engaging your child in an art activity, you can control access to the crayons, markers, colored pencils, paint, or whatever it is that your child wants to use to create their masterpiece. With you providing one color at a time, your child has to communicate with you the next color they want to use. If you child does not know their colors, you can still practice requesting by presenting two colors, wait for your child to point to the color they want, then label the color as you hand the crayon/ marker/ etc. to your child.

Legos/ Blocks

Maybe your child loves building. Building different structures is a perfect time to practice imitation, pattern recognition, colors, counting, and much more. When working on imitation, you build a simple tower, and then ask your child to build the same tower with the same colors. This is also an easy way to work on pattern recognition by using different colored blocks in a pattern then asking your child what block color goes next. Once you have your tower built, you can count the number of blocks in your tower with your child’s help.


No matter your child’s interest, remember you don’t have to be sitting at a desk to learn! By using your child’s motivation and adding a little structure, you increase the likelihood that your child will engage in the task with you and decrease the likelihood of your child becoming frustrated or bored. If your child wants to do something else, that’s okay! Put your thinking cap on and figure out how you can make the next activity an opportunity for learning!


Written by BCBA, Nicole Herber