Playing with other children is an important developmental process that kids go through strengthening their social skills, physical coordination, cognitive development, and emotional intelligence. This can present a huge problem for children with special needs who may be unable to participate in certain activities with their peers due to their physical disabilities, neurological disorders, or other impairments.
In some cases, they are shunned by other kids or even adults, which is a bitter pill to swallow for a kid that just wants to play and feel normal for a time. In other cases, they exclude themselves from taking part due to their own insecurity or limitations. It doesn’t help matters that many of the activities and games that most of us take for granted are not well suited to those with special needs. Even seemingly basic children’s toys can require the kind of fine motor skills to manipulate that many special needs kids don’t possess.
That’s where adaptive play comes in, which is a term that describes any toys or activities which are well suited for use by kids with various disabilities or disorders. Sometimes modifying or adapting a toy is necessary to optimize a child’s success in play. Sometimes choosing the right fit of toy and ability lends to success. Start by looking at what a child is naturally already doing and liking. Experiment together to find patterns, textures, sounds, and smells the child enjoys.
These include toys with adaptive switches that make them simple to use as well as sensory toys like fidget spinners. Chaya Greenspan, a pediatric occupational therapist and the founder and CEO of Work n’ Play Inc., which works with children and their families to help them best tackle the specific challenges they face, says that virtually any game or activity can be adapted so as to be more inclusive of those with special needs.
Bigger is Better
For many such kids, bigger things are often better, allowing them to be seen and handled more easily, which is why ultra-sized crayons and paper are perfect for drawing, while the larger Lego Duplo blocks beat out the much smaller standard Lego blocks for building impressive monuments. Another favorite at Work n’ Play Inc. is playdough, which can be a great tool for developing children’s tactile awareness, building their hand strength and coordination, and relieving stress according to Chaya Greenspan. She cautions that some children may be averse to the feel or smell of playdough, however.
Video Games- the original adaptive Play
Video games are often a favorite pastime of kids with disabilities, potentially allowing them to compete on an even playing field with able-bodied kids, though many are stymied by the complicated controllers. Gaming companies are now reaching out to that market directly with their own adaptive play devices, such as Microsoft’s Adaptive Controller for the Xbox One, which features two large pressure-sensitive pads rather than the dozens of tiny buttons that can be a nightmare to manage for those with special needs. Video games can also be a great way for kids to socialize and learn how to work together or compete against each other, though Chaya Greenspan warns that video games can be extremely addictive for all special needs kids, including those with executive function disorders (ADHD) or those on the autism spectrum.
Modifying Objects for Accessibility
Repurposing readily and affordable materials to make an interesting toy accessible is your best bet for cost and variety. Toys designed with special needs in mind can be quite pricey for just one and may not even attract the interest of the child. Colored tape for visual contrast, foam blocks for easing motor demands, screw drivers to adjust sounds from inside the toy, strings to attach the toy to a weighted crate for ideal positioning are just a few ways to customize a toy. The dollar store has many items you can buy to make a toy of the month with many sensory opportunities. Simple recycled containers can be used till they are destroyed from rough play to hide surprises and encourage motor exploration.
In conclusion, Chaya Greenspan believes the increase in accessibility that toys and games have seen over the past decade is fantastic for helping children with disabilities or disorders participate in the joy and rite of childhood play. However, she insists that the best are still the spontaneous family projects that include the ingenuity of all its members that produce unique toys and games using things you already love.