Integrated Play Groups® Model

  • Pamela Wolfberg, PhD

    San Francisco State University

    Autism Institute on Peer Socialization & Play

    How Parents Can Support Children in Essential Play Experiences with Peers

                Play experiences are essential for every child to fully develop and participate in the culture of childhood. Researchers note that play is not simply a pastime, but is “as basic and pervasive a natural phenomenon as sleep”. Children of all ages make sense of their social, physical and sensory world while playing with both objects and people, especially peers. While playing together, children gain indispensable skills that support social, communicative, linguistic, cognitive, emotional and creative growth.  Conversely, play deprivation has an impact on a child’s development and psychological well-being, that extends into adulthood.

    Dilemma of Play for Children with Autism

                Play’s significance in childhood raises profound concern for children with autism who are missing out on play experiences. Autism is typified by challenges in socialization, communication and imagination, which are accompanied by unusual or stereotypical patterns of behavior, interests and activities. These hallmarks are closely associated with complications in both social and symbolic play.

                Contrary to prevailing myths that children with autism lack an inherent motivation or ability to play, research reveals that these children indeed share many of the same desires and capacities for play and companionship as typical children. What differs is that they convey their interests in unconventional ways such as watching and imitating peers from afar or by directly approaching and talking to peers about an arcane topic.  Peers who lack a framework of understanding are likely to overlook or misinterpret their social advances. After repeated failed attempts to obtain a positive response from peers, children with autism are likely to stop initiating and withdraw into solitary activity.

    Integrated Play Groups® (IPG) Model

                Integrated Play Groups (IPG) is an established model designed to support children on the autism spectrum in mutually engaging play experiences with typical peers and siblings in natural settings such as the child’s school, home and community. Based on award-winning research, it has been found to be effective in promoting socialization, communication, play and imagination in children with autism representing diverse ages, abilities, socioeconomic groups, languages and cultures.   Originally developed for children ages 3 to 11 years, it is now being adapted for older populations by incorporating cultural arts – such as drama, art, filmmaking and other creative activities.  The Autism Institute on Peer Socialization and Play is devoted to advancing IPG training, research and global development efforts. Owing to the collective contributions of many professionals and families, high quality IPG programs are delivered worldwide with San Francisco as our center of operations.

    IPG Approach

                An IPG brings together children with autism (novice players) and competent peer partners (expert players) who are led by a trained adult facilitator (IPG Guide). Using sensitive assessments, IPG sessions are tailored to children’s unique interests, abilities and needs within a specially designed play environment. Guided participation (inspired by Vygotsky) is a systematic method used to maximize each child’s developmental potential and intrinsic desire to play.  Play activities may include pretending, constructing, movement, interactive games, art, music, drama, video and other creative pursuits.  IPG Guides incorporate routines, rituals and visual supports into play scenarios in order to ensure that all children are able to access and contribute to the experience. Emphasis is placed on guiding mutual engagement in play experiences that encourage social interaction, communication, play and imagination. Equal emphasis is placed on guiding peers to be responsive and inclusive of the diverse ways children communicate, relate and play. Gradually the children learn how to play together with less and less adult support.

    Planning Integrated Play Groups for your Child

    Form an IPG parent-professional team.

    Since each IPG is customized as a part of a child’s individual education /therapy program, they are planned through a collaborative parent-professional team process.  The Integrated Play Groups Field Manual (Wolfberg, 2003) is designed to help support this process.


    Determine if the IPG program is appropriate for your child.

    To be eligible for an IPG, a child is at least 3 years of age and receiving support services as part of an individualized education/therapeutic program (IFSP/IEP).  An IPG may be considered appropriate if the team agrees that your child (a) presents developmental delays or differences that impact on his or her capacity to spontaneously play and socialize with peers, and (b) will potentially benefit from an intensive inclusive peer play intervention to address challenges in these areas.


    Identify a  qualified IPG provider.

    Fully qualified IPG Providers successfully complete a comprehensive Apprenticeship training program offered via the Autism Institute on Peer Socialization and Play. One option is to arrange for a member of the team to receive training to become a qualified IPG provider. During this process, they will receive direct supervision from an experienced IPG Field Supervisor while implementing the IPG program with your child.  Another option is to recruit an IPG provider who is already qualified.


    Prepare the IPG program site.

    In preparation for delivery of the IPG program at the selected site, it is important to “demystify” autism for the children and adults. The Friend 2 Friend Social Learning Society offers Autism Demystification programs and resources that are designed to foster understanding, acceptance and empathy for people with autism in a sensitive and age-appropriate manner. Consistent with a philosophy of respect for diversity and inclusion, these programs are delivered to integrated groups and never identify a particular child as having autism to the group.


    Develop an  IPG program schedule. Designate a consistent time for IPGs to run on a regular and frequent basis. IPG programs generally run for 12 weeks, meeting twice weekly for either 30 or 60 minute sessions.  Many of our school programs run for 30 minutes during a natural social break (e.g., lunch/recess time) while many of our after-school, community, and home-based programs run longer.


    Form a small, stable group of compatible players. Each group includes 3 to 5 players with a higher number of expert players as compared to novice players. Groups may include children of a similar age or mixed ages, both of which offer benefits. Recruited from a child’s natural social network, expert players include typical peers and siblings who are competent players and express interest in participating.  When selecting peers, it is helpful to consider those who might have the potential of forming a long-lasting friendship with your child that extends beyond the IPG setting. Selecting familiar peers offer advantages from the start, but familiarity can also evolve as a part of the IPG experience.

    Create a safe, familiar, inviting space to socialize and play.Within the respective school, home or community setting, IPGs take place in specially designed play areas. It is optimal to designate a permanent space that is available for regular and extended use. Play areas may be set up in classrooms, therapy rooms, family rooms or outdoor playhouses. They are purposefully restricted in size with clearly defined boundaries, explicitly organized with visual supports and thematically arranged. Play areas include a wide range of developmentally and age appropriate play materials that have high social and imaginative potential and are of mutual interest to all of the players, including your own child’s unique fascinations.

    Themes Reflected in a High Quality IPG Program

    • Recognize the importance of play for children’s learning, development, and socio-cultural participation

    • Adapt to each child’s unique interests, developmental levels, and learning style

    • Identify and respond to what is intrinsically motivating for the child

    • Support opportunities that include typically developing peers as “genuine” play partners

    • Be open to blending “best practices” to meet each child’s full potential for play

    Pamela Wolfberg, Ph.D. is Professor in the Autism Spectrum Program at San Francisco State University, faculty advisor for the Joint Doctoral Program in Special Education at the University of California, Berkeley with SFSU and founding director of the Autism Institute on Peer Socialization and Play. For more information on IPG training, research, publications and global development, visit 

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