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A lot of research has been done in using play in higher education as a method to increase the impact of learning and developing competencies. Play has been specifically helpful for young adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), as play boosts the development of social skills and independence and have proven to increase the sense of well-being and academic performance which students with ASD often struggle with (Broussard, 2011; Lei et al., 2018).

Implementing play in a curriculum, creates a positive environment for learners to develop knowledge, skills and attitude (ie. competencies) in. Through play, the development of social skills, such as communication, critical thinking and problem-solving becomes easier for students with ASD (Madriaga, 2010; Bennie, 2020).


While role-play isn’t always the most popular in higher education, due to the fact that it takes people out of their comfort zones, role-play is a very effective method to increase learning and development. Students with ASD in particular benefit from role-playing as it stimulates creativity and gives freedom to the student as to how to express themselves. This particular form of play increases the engagement and self-confidence of students (Sherrin, 2015; Natekar, 2019).

Implementing Role-play

When role-play gets implemented into education, it allows the teacher to tailor the learning moments to the needs of the learner (Sherrin, 2015). By presenting the students with social situations they could encounter in real life, such as conflict, compromise, identity, choice, and the consequences of their choices, the learned social skills can be easier transferred to real-life skills (Jackson and Back, 2011; Sherrin, 2015).

To increase the impact of learning through role-play, certain elements need to be designed. (Jackson and Back, 2011).

1. An engaging topic

To benefit from role-play, the topic the students are playing with needs to be engaging. Ask your students about their interests to figure out the topic. Research states that students with ASD prefer fantasy, action-adventure type games, so naturally a role-play in a fantasy setting where they can be heroes would be an engaging topic.

2. Learning Goals

Ensure that you set learning goals with your students before starting the role-play. What is it that you want your students to learn or develop? Are they certain skills? Or is it knowledge? Make sure you set these out before developing the role-play.

3. Urgency

With good learning goals in mind, you can create the urgency that students need to feel when engaging in the role-play. For example; if you want your students to develop the skill to ask open-ended questions to people, a detective-type role-play where students have to interviews suspects could be an interesting way to practice asking these types of questions. Or if you’re trying to teach the students about how the roman empire fell, let them be characters that took part in the fall, as the invading barbarians.

4. A safe environment

And lastly, it is if great importance to set up an environment in which it is safe to play in. Ensure you give feed-forward during the session, encourage your players to try things, praise them when they do and keep an open mind. What can help is to set some rules with the group of students before starting to play, such as; keep a positive attitude, be respectful to each other etc. Clear rules increase the effects of collaborative learning and builds individual accountability in the students (Jackson and Back, 2011; González and Merino, 2016; Dochy, 2018).

With this setup, students are allowed to safely deepen their skills, increase their self-awareness and continue learning during and after play increasing the effects of the development (Jackson and Back, 2011) both in and outside of the direct learning environment.

Want to know more about implementing play in higher education, talk about opportunities for you students, feel free to send me a message.

Odette Jansen

Odette Jansen

Autism Coach | Teacher | Dungeon Delver

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