Social Thinking Articles


Why Social Thinking Developed an Interactive Play Scale (GPS) and How This Relates to Classroom Participation


© 2021 Think Social Publishing, Inc.

It’s been six years since we introduced our early learner Social Thinking curriculum, We Thinkers! Volume 1 Social Explorers, in spring 2013. We’re so very proud and excited to release Volume 2 series formerly named The Incredible Flexible You. Many people in our community had been eagerly awaiting its release (as have we!) and had wondered why it has taken us so long to produce this work. 

The answer is simple and at the same time complex: we created something entirely new in the world of early childhood learning—a multi-level interactive play scale to take an in-depth look at each child’s interactive play skills to guide individualized treatment planning. We’re calling the scale our Group Collaboration, Play and Problem Solving (GPS) Scale. We realized this was needed when it became clear that while children were demonstrating progress in social learning, many still had limited abilities to play interactively. We wanted to address how we can teach social skills and its more complex cousin, interactive play, with lessons that were appropriate to children, based on their interactive play profile. It required plenty of research and many long hours observing children at play in lots of different situations, from structured to totally unstructured free play, to figure out the GPS’s different levels. Next we created tools to help adults observe and accurately score children’s existing play skills, and then we created differentiated activities for each GPS level that adults can use to help children advance in their skills and become better interactive players and social problem solvers. (Just consider the executive functioning skills we four authors were using in collaborating on this project!) As if all of this wasn’t enough, we then had to tie all this new information back to the storybook concepts and curriculum we had already created for We Thinkers! Volume 2 Social Problem Solvers so it all seamlessly worked together.

Some of you may be thinking “Wow, I see why it took this long to create!” while others may be thinking “Seriously, three years?” Yes it took a while but what we were doing was so important: to us, to you, and to all those kids with whom we work. So we want to talk a little more about our reasoning and motivations in taking the extra time to create the GPS Play Scale and tools, because it’s actually central to you understanding why what we created is such a milestone in helping our early learners and how it can propel your own teaching to new heights and new directions!

The Prime Importance of Play

Why put so much emphasis on interactive play when everyone is focused on academic learning? It is clear from research on early development and social emotional learning that children become classroom ready when they develop peer-based interactive play skills (Coolahan, Fantuzzo, Mendez, & McDermott, 2000). The keywords here are “peer-based”, “interactive” and “play.” Yet, if you work with or live with younger kids, you already know that not all preschool and young school-age kids play in the same way. Some prefer to play by themselves; others play mainly with adults, while others gravitate toward peer play groups (with varying levels of success in that group). Translation: kids come to the classroom with differing abilities. Those who are more “me-based” or adult-based players are not as likely to naturally figure out the dynamics of a playground or a classroom, while those with stronger “we-based” play skills tend to be more fluid in their ability to attend and learn in larger groups. 

As we acknowledged the importance of interactive play and problem solving as laying the foundation for future years of classroom learning, we thought it a good idea to figure out how to teach interactive play. The result was our new GPS book, a third component to the We Thinkers! Volume 2 Social Problem Solvers product. 

It all starts with a play scale. The top layer of the GPS Scale follows. It gives you a first look at the GPS’s five levels of interactive play.

Copyright © 2016 Think Social Publishing, Inc. From We Thinkers! GPS (page 26)

So how did all this new thought come about?

It’s fair to say we all take social development for granted. We expect infants to naturally evolve quickly, first to their environment through developing social awareness to their caregivers and motor skills that allow them to move about with increasing independence. Then sensory regulation kicks in and helps them modulate all the different sensory experiences, and social attention emerges to the people around them. This all takes place while they are acquiring social communication skills as they participate in increasingly complex circles of engagement. 

As children go from their late 2s to 3s we notice children more actively pursue reciprocal engagement, not only with adults but with their same-age peers. Between ages 4 and 5, typical children are engaging in what we are calling Shared, Collaborative, Imaginative Play (SCIP), a capacity to engage in abstract, flexible play where they are sharing their imaginations, negotiating roles, and adjusting their play plans based on their own and others’ shared thinking and behaviors. Props may or may not be used; the fun of play seems to be in suspending reality to imagine themselves together as pirates, teachers, parents, store managers, firefighters, etc. 

SCIP is complex play, despite how simple it may look to outsiders. It involves reading intentions, understanding shared goals, the ability to play outside any defined set of rules, being willing to go with the flow based on the desires of the group, and sustain play over time. As children acquire the ability to relate flexibly and play collaboratively, they are also learning to problem solve and learning classroom readiness skills. At school it is expected that children know how to work in a group, read the intentions of a teacher, understand that other children are sharing the same thoughts, and imagine the concepts the teacher is teaching. They need to be flexible, goal oriented, and purposeful in their actions. This also requires a strong ability to self-regulate their attention, thoughts, and actions to match the plan of the group. It’s a tall order we expect of our early learners!

Not Just Play, But Interactive Play

We created our early learner curriculum for this very reason: to help teach children with strong language skills and some basic academic competencies the crucial and foundational skills that would help them become better social thinkers and use a stronger set of related social skills. We Thinkers! Volume 1 Social Explorers came about for this very reason. It focused on core Social Thinking Vocabulary concepts to teach social basics: “we all have thoughts and feelings”, “read the group plan”, “think with your eyes”, “is your body part of the group?” and “use whole body listening.” We teach these concepts and related social skills using engaging storybooks, music, and play-like activities to help children investigate and better engage in the social world that surrounds them. 

Since the release of Volume 1 you’ve told us that the materials do help many children improve in their own learning about social information and related social skills, and as children start using the language of Social Thinking, they become more aware, and their social skills improve.  And while the community has shared with us the use of the concepts and the changes they have observed across contexts, there were still lots of questions about how to bring the same levels of success beyond structured adult-led situations. 

Most play isn’t “adult-led.” SCIP certainly isn’t; it’s pure free play where kids come together, figure things out, and play all on their own! After releasing Volume 1 we started seeing that parents and professionals were expecting that all the good skills we were teaching children would generalize across settings. Adults were thinking and expecting that by using our framework (or other social skills interventions) children would be able to not only play fluidly with different peers on the playground, but use these same skills to work well in center-based activities. From some we were hearing comments such as “the child’s learning didn’t generalize!” 

Your responses became our motivation to explore this concept of generalization and look at it from multiple angles. What we discovered was that virtually all social skills interventions, ours as well as others, do not address teaching children how to engage in complex interactive multi-player play. Instead they teach children aspects of social attention, social awareness, and basic social skills, without helping children learn how to put it all together and use these individual skills fluidly, interactively, and collaboratively (what SCIP is all about). Furthermore, none of them help adults even figure out if the child’s neurological challenges affect their ability to engage in SCIP! This propelled the four of us authors, who were far along in the creation of Volume 2, to go back, revisit what and how we were teaching play, and create a scale to help adult stakeholders better evaluate a child’s current interactive play abilities. We knew this would better define and help us all be more realistic in our expectations when using our We Thinkers! curriculum or any other social skills intervention.

Introducing the GPS

This was no small task, as we alluded to at the beginning of this article. We had to go beyond what current literature and research was telling us about individual social abilities in our children. This was an investigation into not only the basic social skills needed to enter into and work as part of a structured adult-led group (e.g., a classroom, circle time activities or structured play), but the skills required for children to engage reciprocally and with imagination away from adult leadership. 

Our answers led us to create our five level Group Collaboration, Play and Problem Solving Scale, identify six key areas to explore in evaluating children’s play abilities, and design concrete tools to guide parents and professionals in more closely observing play behaviors to figure out where a child falls on the scale. 

The hardest thing about creating the GPS Scale was figuring out what core elements to focus on when observing children. We knew we had to keep this list fairly short for our related GPS Observation Checklist to be readily used by many. Through our research we decided that six core areas were at the heart of children’s interactive play:

  • Who does the child primarily pay attention to: adults or peers?
  • Does the child primarily use novel or scripted language during interactive play?
  • Does the child use toys or play props in an abstract or concrete manner?
  • Does the child engage in a singular or shared imagination when interacting with others?
  • Is the child flexible or rigid during interactive play?
  • How does the child discover and/or negotiate the problems that occur in play?

The five different levels of play could then be summarized as children ranging from Me-based to We-based players along the continuum defined on our GPS Scale (see diagram earlier in article).

That was just the beginning! All that thinking, structuring, planning and writing still didn’t have the teaching piece: how to put all that good thought into concrete actions with our kids. So we created differentiated interactive play activities that connected to each of the Volume 2 storybook concepts and curriculum units but focused on teaching and encouraging children to engage in interactive, peer-based play at each level of the scale.

The end result, our GPS Play Scale, observation tools, and interactive play activities, will change the way you look at and think about your students, clients, or children and teach them social thinking and related social skills. Now you have tools that further explode the social code so you can individualize your treatment to each child’s starting play level and learning abilities, and better align your interventions to Common Core or state standards, PBIS, SEL, or RTI initiatives.

Best of all, these new GPS tools will go further in helping our kids learn to notice and consider the thoughts and emotions of others in their daily attempts to share space and interact. This is life-learning we are teaching, and we can start while children are young and lay the foundation for their journey through school, toward college and careers, and success in all areas of their lives as they engage in increasingly complex social situations.

Thank you for your patience while we created this groundbreaking new work on children’s interactive play skills. We hope you find it helpful in figuring out where to start when creating treatment plans to help children be part of groups in their classroom, family and/or community.


Coolahan, K., Fantuzzo, J., Mendez, J., & McDermott, P. (2000). Preschool peer interactions and readiness to learn: Relationships between classroom peer play and learning behaviors and conduct. Journal of Educational Psychology, 92(3), 458-465.

Winner, M., Tarshis, N., Palmer, K., & Hendrix, R. (2016). We Thinkers! GPS. Santa Clara, CA: Think Social Publishing, Inc.

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