Play Ideas for children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities
Whether your child is slaying a dragon, pretending to be a pirate in a paddling pool or building a fort out of the sofa, there are so many ways a child can engage in play. For children with special educational needs and disability (SEND), it can be difficult to access all activities – but they still have the right to play! So here are some handy play ideas to help children with SEND join in on the fun.
When the word art is mentioned, many parents first reaction is to think of the mess! But art is a great gateway to play for children with SEND because it’s such an open activity – there are no right or wrong answers when you are creating a masterpiece. There are a variety of adaptable art play options for children with SEND such as making a texture book, face painting, mural painting, hand print painting, making collages or sticking some blank paper on a wall and turning it into a ‘graffiti wall’. For less messy art, try water painting on the pavement or a brick wall outside.
Art therapy may be particularly beneficial for children with autism, who make up 11% of all children with SEND [1, 2]. There are lots of benefits to Art as Research has found that taking part in art therapy classes improves social skills, such as assertion, as well as decreasing the childrens’ hyperactivity scores and problem behaviours. So get your aprons at the ready!
Who doesn’t love a bit of biscuit decorating? Get some ready made biscuits and provide icing, sweets and decorations (keeping in mind any allergies or sensory sensitivity). This can be done relatively inexpensively and is an activity that children with or without SEND can join in with and enjoy. Your children might even share their creations…if you’re lucky!
Treasure hunts seem to really capture children’s imaginations and can be easily adapted to suit many needs and abilities. Ask your child to find objects in the house or in the garden, e.g. a leaf or a daisy. For children with a hearing impairment or difficulty following instructions, print off pictures of the objects you want them to find. Another version of the game is to use things they are interested in, such as spotting animals or finding pre-hidden sweets.
Some children with SEND have difficulties with understanding and processing language. So Sensory play ideas that utilise their senses (and don’t require language or comprehension) can be ideal for development, and enjoyment.
Turning your pots and pans into a drum kit, complete with wooden spoons as the sticks can be endless hours of fun. Flying to space in an old cardboard box, popping old bubble wrap or even ripping up junk paper from your paper recycling into shapes are simple ways to entertain youngsters too. These high energy activities are great for children with ADHD who find it difficult to sit still and concentrate.
If your child has limited mobility, focus on what they can do rather than what they can’t.
For example, if they can blow with their mouth, get them blowing bubbles, or blowing ping pong balls across a tabletop.
Plastic bottles can be a very useful tool for a parent. You can fill them with pasta, beads or buttons to create maracas. Or, you could fill them with water and glitter (make sure the lid is sealed tightly!) for visual stimulation. Another water based idea is getting a tray/bucket of water or sand for your child so they can play with different textures. You can even add bubble bath and include their favourite bath toys for double the fun.
You could also play the sensory guessing game. Place a number of different large objects in several cloth bags, such as a candle, a hunk of bread, a mobile telephone, a tissue, or a leaf. Each child gets to feel the bag and identify one object without looking inside, then pull it out. If they guessed wrong they have to put it back (or keep it/gain a point if they are correct).
Role Play/ Story Telling
If you watched the TV series “The Secret Life of Five Year-olds”, you may have spotted Daisy, who has cerebral palsy – she can’t walk or sit up unaided, so has to use a wheelchair. You may also have seen her become the main character in a role play story; the other children pretended to rescue Daisy (the damsel in distress) from the ‘nasty bear’ with a hosepipe. Even for a child with limited mobility, imaginative play is both possible and thoroughly enjoyable. Playing with friends can encourage this but by providing props that your child can use – which will depend on their SEND – will give them the opportunity to make up their own stories. You could also tell them stories and add extra features to make it more exciting – whether that’s pictures, puppets, or even adding sounds and smells to bring it to life.
Fun should be for all. Getting everyone playing together – as with Daisy – not only helps children with SEND feel included, but it also teaches other children to understand and accept the differences in others . The key to inclusive play is not just that it is accessible for everyone, but that it’s also fun – who knows, maybe parents can enjoy these play ideas too!
1. Department for Education. (2014). Educational and Child Psychology. Developing an intervention to improve reading comprehension for children and young people with autism spectrum disorders, 34(2), 13.
2. Epp, K. (2008). Outcome-Based Evaluation of a Social Skills Program Using Art Therapy and Group Therapy for Children on the Autism Spectrum. Children & Schools, 30(1), 27-36.
3. Diamond, K. E. (2016). Relationships Among Young Children’s Ideas, Emotional Understanding, and Social Contact with Classmates with Disabilities. Topics in Early Childhood Special Education, 21(2), 104-113.
This post was written by Sami Liles and Anna Taylor.
This post was written by Anna Taylor