Reinforcement on the Playground

What is reinforcement on the playground, and why is it important?

For many children,  EBIP_teaching children outdoors_physical activity_peer mediated procedures_1engaging in physical activity may be reinforcing in itself. That is, children engage in physical activity simply because they like to. For other children, including children with disabilities, physical activity may be challenging or aversive. This is especially true for children with motor or social delays, who may find these activities more difficult. Like most adults, children who struggle to complete activities often avoid those activities, worsening existing deficits. You may need to find alternative ways to motivate these children to engage in moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA).

Why should you be concerned about MVPA? It is currently recommended that children get 60 min of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA) per day, but research indicates the young children typically get far less than the recommended hour. Engaging in MVPA has many benefits for children, including decreasing potential health risks (e.g., obesity, asthma, physical stress), increasing appropriate behaviors, and decreasing challenging behaviors (e.g., stereotypy, inattention). Movement activities also serve as instructional contexts in which teachers can promote motor development, social skills, and communication abilities. Because young children spend a significant portion of their day outdoors, this is invaluable instructional time, whether instruction is child-led or teacher-led. For more details about the importance of MVPA, see the Teacher-Directed Physical Activity section.

How can I reinforce physical activity on the playground? 

EBIP_teaching children outdoors_physical activity_teacher directed_6Here are some suggestions for ways to reinforce physical activity on the playground:

1. Use teacher attention as reinforcement. Even during child-directed portions of outside play, you should also participate in active play. Rather than “leaving children alone” when they are engaging in appropriate active play with peers, you should join and participate in the play, reinforcing these behaviors by providing praise, as well as imitating and expanding what children are doing. By participating in movement activities and making your attention available primarily to children actively engaged in play, you are likely to increase engagement and MVPA for children who are motivated by teacher attention.

2. Make highly-preferred seated activities available contingent on physical activity. In other words, make outdoor toys or activities that promote staying seated (e.g., shovels and buckets, swings) available only after children have completed a teacher-directed movement activity or after a designated “movement period.” For example, for a young child who requires being pushed on the swing set, you could offer to push a child after a game of Red Light Green Light. If there are no toys or activities on the playground that the child enjoys, you might consider bringing out a special toy that is available only after completing an activity that promotes movement (see suggestions #3 and #5).

3. Incorporate child interests into movement activities. By making simple and inexpensive adjustments to incorporate child interests into outdoor movement games, you can make these games more motivating and interesting! A game of tag can become “fairy princess tag,” where children wear fairy wings and the “tagger” chases other children with a fairy wand. A game of freeze tag can become Frozen® tag, where “Elsa” (wearing a crown) freezes his/her friends, and only “Olaf” can unfreeze them with his/her plastic carrot nose. A simple obstacle course can become a trip through Candy Land—run through the peppermint forest, climb up the gingerbread plumb trees, and jump over the gumdrop mountains! With a little imagination and creativity, your students’ favorite characters, books, and movies can become a part of everyday movement activities.

4. Rotate outdoor play materials. evidence-based-instructional-practices-14Make a bucket of outdoor materials available to students on the playground, and each day, rotate in at least a few new choices. This may increase child interest in the materials in your playground bucket, in that they are less likely to grow tired of using the same materials over and over again. Research has shown that when compared to “business as usual,” just bringing out a bucket of novel materials (without any additional prompting or praising) can increase child engagement with materials and peers for some children.For more ideas for materials to include in your “outdoor bucket,” see the Teacher-Mediated Structured Choice section.

5. Consider using toys or edible items for reinforcement. For some children, teacher attention and outdoor activities will not be reinforcing enough to change engagement in physical activities. For children for whom strategies 1-4 are ineffective, additional reinforcement may be required. You might consider reinforcing physical activity with a favorite indoor toy or small edible items (e.g., a single M&M for a 10-minute activity). As the child learns to engage appropriately in movement activities, these activities may become more reinforcing in and of themselves, as which point you can begin to gradually fade out edible or toy reinforcement.

What can I find additional information regarding reinforcement for physical activity in early childhood?

  1. Ledford, J. R., Lane, J. D., Shepley, C., & Kroll, S. M. (2015). Using teacher-implemented playground interventions to increase engagement, social behaviors, and physical activity for young children with autism. Focus on Autism and other Developmental Disabilities. Advance online publication.

To cite this page (APA 6th edition):

  • Chazin, K.T. & Ledford, J.R. (2016). Reinforcement on the playground. In Evidence-based instructional practices for young children with autism and other disabilities. Retrieved from