Written by: Jenevy Sidhu
The fanciest iPads (tuned to the educational channel, of course) and the glossiest books might look like they would best teach our children all they need to know, but studies have proven otherwise (Leong & Bodrova, 2005). What turns out to be even more valuable is YOU, the parent, and how you interact with your child, namely through play. Children with special needs are no different in this respect.
This—often sidelined—thing that is known as “play” functions as an essential component for our children to develop important cognitive and social skills such as memory, literacy (oral language), self-regulation and social competence.
Children with autism, for instance, may have trouble understanding social rules such as turn-taking or sharing. Unlike playing with screens, where a child has to wait about 0 seconds before they can hit a button again, when a child plays with a parent or a sibling, they naturally learn the skills involved in social competence. This includes waiting for their turn, allowing others to have a turn and the ability to share. These lifelong skills will be carried into adolescence and even adulthood, so start them from young!
Children with special needs may also struggle to wait or comprehend the consequences of their actions. Parents must utilise the trusted bonds they have with their children to teach them these skills through play. For instance: daddy isn’t happy when Toy A is yanked from him. Over time, the child learns the consequence of her actions and builds control over her impulses, as opposed to grabbing what she wants and when she wants it. These self-regulation skills, when generalised to the classroom, helps the child to assimilate well with their peers and brings about a positive experience, reducing stress for both the child and the family.
Play allows children to learn and expand their vocabulary. One thing children do really well is model the adults they like, and there is no one a child reveres more than their own parents. Playing with your child allows you to whet your child’s appetite for language i.e. by naming the objects you’re playing with, the actions they’re doing or even by introducing emotions. While it may come automatically to typically developing children, children with special needs should be given plenty of opportunities for them to hear the language used in various settings before they start using it themselves.
If your child is having trouble in modelling and imitation, as many children with special needs do, playing with their favourite toys can be a strong motivator to get them to imitate the actions and sounds you make (Ingersoll, 2008). According to Lauren Lowry, a certified Hanen speech-language pathologist, imitation is a good predictor of language outcomes. Before your child starts talking, they should first learn how to imitate you - and what better way than through play?
As an early intervention educator, I have witnessed both sides of the coin. It shows when a child is left to ‘play’ with devices for long periods - in their short attention spans and in their inability to ‘shut off’ which results in a myriad of self-stimulating and sensory-seeking behaviours. Someone once told me that screens to children are what cocaine is to an adult, in that it has an overstimulating effect on the brain. On the other hand, when parents are actively involved in the intervention of their children, play included, their children come to school calmer, more well-adjusted and have longer attention spans. This allows for optimal learning and acquirement of new skills to take place which benefits the child and reduces frustration for all parties involved.
Ingersoll, B. (2008). The Social Role of Imitation in Autism: Implications for the Treatment of Imitation Deficits. Infants & Young Children, 21(2), 107–119.
Bodrova, Elena & Leong, Deborah. (2005). The Importance of Play: Why Children Need to Play. Early Childhood Today. 20. 6-7.
Lowry, Lauren. Imitation with Children on the Autism Spectrum - More Than Just a Game of Copycat, 2016, www.hanen.org/Helpful-Info/Articles/Imitation-with-Children-on-the-Autism-Spectrum.aspx.