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Supporting Children with Special Needs through Play

What is the Importance of Play?

Play is incredibly valuable for all children, but having special needs can present barriers which may make it difficult for them to fully enjoy the experience. The needs of little ones vary a lot, so it’s often down to you, the parent or carer, to understand the challenges and adapt to your individual child.

It’s really important to avoid losing play value in favour of accessibility; simply being able to do something isn’t what makes it enjoyable. Just remember to focus on what your child can do, rather than what they can’t, when planning play time. Play should be freely chosen, personally directed and intrinsically motivated – in other words, a child with special needs might need a little support, but they also need the freedom to decide what to play and how to go about it.

The benefits of play for children with special needs

Children generally learn and develop a lot through play, and those with special needs are no different. In addition, play can support the specific difficulties your child might have. 

For example, if your child has a hearing or visual impairment, play can help strengthen their other senses to help them navigate and explore the world. If they have a mobility impairment, play can exercise their muscles and improve coordination.

Children with autistic spectrum disorder may be less social or imaginative with their play. They may instead show interest in non-toy objects, and get enjoyment from things like counting or sorting objects – this is still playing! You can use their interests to encourage social and imaginative play, by joining in with the activities they enjoy.

A child with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may also struggle to play socially, because their symptoms, such as having difficulty waiting their turn, can sometimes put other children off playing with them. Play can give children with ADHD the chance to express themselves and exert some energy, and with some adult guidance can help them build relationships with other children too.

Sensory Play

Exploration and discovery are key to play, and experimenting with different senses can be very enjoyable for children. Stimulating these senses also strengthens connections in the brain which are important for all types of learning.

The benefits of sensory play for children with special needs include:

  • Cognitive development: understanding how things work, comparing the characteristics of different materials
  • Social skills: Children can watch how others play, copy and share ideas
  • Self-awareness: Children learn what materials they like and don’t like, increasing their understanding of themselves
  • Physical development: Sensory activities can be a good workout for the small muscles in their hands and fingers (known as fine motor control)
  • Emotional development: Play can be a good release for energy or stress, and means children can also express positive feelings
  • Communication skills: Whatever their level of language development, children can express their reactions to the materials, e.g. showing excitement at splashing water, or surprise when they experience something new.


Remember to adapt to your child so they can get the most out of their play experience. For example if they are hypersensitive, introduce new materials carefully, and be aware of those they do not like or if your child has a mobility impairment, make sure the activity table is accessible.