The Importance of Building Leisure Skills

Leisure skill building is very important for the development of both children with and without disabilities. Leisure skills are skills a child can utilize to occupy themselves when they have down time or free time; these are skills they can do without the help of others. These skills give children the ability to engage in activities such as coloring, reading, listening to music, playing a game, playing with toys, or watching a movie or television show. When children have adequate leisure skills, they are able to engage in appropriate leisure activities during idle times, rather than engage in maladaptive behaviors. Without these skills, the maladaptive behaviors may become their preferred activity. It is best to prevent maladaptive behaviors from occurring in the first place, rather than trying to get rid of them after they have started. In some cases, children may be unsure of what to do during down time, and must be taught appropriate leisure skills. This means the child can independently choose an activity and independently engage in the activity during appropriate times.

Children with autism may have difficultly developing appropriate leisure skills; however, with the proper tools, they can be taught these skills, which can help improve their overall wellbeing. When caregivers begin teaching leisure skills to children with autism, there may be some challenges they may have to overcome. These can include: difficulty choosing activities that are developmentally appropriate, having to potentially modify instructions for specific activities, a potentially limited attention span for activities, and the child becoming fixated on only one activity. 

To help combat these challenges, caregivers should research what activities are available for the specific child’s developmental level. Or, caregivers can seek guidance from an expert. They should also be sure that the activities are things the child would actually be interested in. This can be done by simply bringing the activity to the attention of the child, and if the child explores the item without prompts, you have a winner! Finally, caregivers should be sure they are not finding just one activity to introduce, but a variety of activities.

Introducing children to a variety of leisure activities not only gives them a “toolbox” of options to choose from during idle time, but it gives children the opportunity to engage in leisure activities in a variety of settings. For instance, if a child only enjoys playing video games, an issue may arise when not all of the components are available (i.e. electricity, television, etc.). In the event the game system is not available, or the child is in a setting in which playing a video game is not appropriate, they would have no other options for activities in which to engage. However, introducing children to a plethora of activities will help combat that issue by giving them the option to choose another activity that they would enjoy.

In addition to the benefits leisure skills have for children, they have many benefits for caregivers as well. For instance, highly preferred leisure activities can be utilized as motivators for children. If a child has a difficult time staying focused or completing tasks, preferred leisure activities can be offered as a reward for completing tasks in a timely manner. Furthermore, access to those same activities can be withheld in the event that tasks are not completed, or if undesired behaviors are occurring.

Appropriate leisure skills will be vital to the lives of children, as well as their overall development. These skills will be utilized regularly as they mature into adulthood. Being sure your child has adequate leisure skills will equip them with the necessary skills to not only utilize idle time appropriately, but potentially have a positive impact on the development of various social skills. When preparing to teach leisure skills to children, it is important to remember these key points: introduce as much variety in activities as possible, encourage engagement in leisure activities in a variety of locations, and, if necessary, limit the length of time children are engaging in the activity to prevent the item from losing its appealing value.  Leisure skill building will not only create enjoyable moments for children, but give families more opportunities to enjoy various activities together!


Dana Williams is the Senior Behavior Specialist for the Child and Adolescent Neuropsychiatric Unit at Sheppard Pratt Health System. She has a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and a Master’s degree in Applied Behavior Analysis. Dana has been a board certified behavior analyst for over two years, and has worked in the field of autism for more than six years.