Close your eyes and imagine your favorite childhood memory. Were you playing chase outside with your closest friends? Playing house with your sister? Building an imaginary fort with your brother? Was it family board game night? Through play, typically-developing children acquire the skills necessary to communicate with others, physically manipulate a variety of items of all sizes, build strength and endurance, express and understand emotions, and gain understanding of their world. As children, play motivates us to get good grades in school, do all of our chores, and even eat our least favorite foods!
Now imagine as a child, due to a disability, you were unable to develop the skills necessary to play with others. While typically-developing children may naturally make a baby doll drink from a bottle or build a house out of blocks, children with disabilities often reject toys by pushing them away, play with them inappropriately, or ignore them altogether. The skills needed to enjoy play must be taught by a trusting adult through activities that are motivating and engaging.
Play can be used to teach basic to complex language skills to children with disabilities. Some of these skills include:
- Following simple directions to play with a toy (e.g. “Put the horse in the stable”).
- Following complex directions (e.g. Let’s brush the doll’s hair and then put on her beautiful dress.)
- Identifying items to play with (e.g. “Find the blue fish”).
- Requesting preferred play toys (e.g. “What do you want?” “I want the tractor toy”).
- Teaching the sounds necessary for children to independently produce words used to play (e.g. “The cat says ‘meow’.” The car goes ‘vroom’.”).
- Modeling appropriate turn-taking skills (e.g. “First it is my turn. Then it is your turn”).
- Answering questions (e.g. “Where do we put the letter?” “In the mailbox!”)
- Playing pretend (e.g. “Who do you want to be?” “I want to be the king.” “What does a king wear?” “I can use this blanket as my robe and a pot as my crown.” “Great idea!”)
It is through these types of social exchanges that appropriate language usage is modeled in a relaxed, natural, and nurturing learning environment. In order for the play activities to be engaging, you must first identify what toys the child likes. Try presenting the child with a variety of toys to identify the child’s level of play. Some different categories would be:
- Cause & effect toys: Toys that light up, make sounds, spin, etc. when triggered by touch. These are the simplest toys because they are easily activated and meet a child’s basic sensory needs. You can promote language usage by asking the child to follow simple directions, such as “Touch the big button” or “Look at the lights.”
- Toys that have a clear beginning/end: These would be puzzles, shape sorters, Mr. Potato Head, and ring stackers. You can promote language usage by asking the child to differentiate between items “Where do we put the cow puzzle piece?” or “Show me the yellow circle.”
- Toys that can be used to teach daily life skills: These would include baby dolls with accessories, doctor’s kits, and kitchen sets with play food. You can promote language usage by asking the child to perform basic skills “How do you feed the baby?” or “Can you please take my temperature?”
- Representational pretend play toys: Once children are able to understand more concrete toys, they can then expand their ideas creatively and abstractly. You can promote language usage by helping the child to build a fort out of blocks, play house and reverse the roles (the mommy pretends to be a child while the child pretends to be a mommy), or going “apple-picking” in your backyard by filling a wagon with lots of balls then “cooking” some applesauce with them in a big “bucket” pot. At this point, you are only limited by your imagination.
- Complex dramatization toys: This is where children can use toys to represent more complex social situations. These would include playing with Barbies and other fashion dolls, action figures, and Transformers. Girls will want to create scenarios about going to the school dance, while boys would rather fight an intergalactic battle. Still, you are able to work on language skills by encouraging ongoing, topic-related social exchanges.
Regardless of a child’s abilities, you want play to be fun, stimulating, and nurturing. It should never feel like work. Play should stimulate language development by fostering creativity and building a strong child-caregiver bond.
*This was originally written by me and appeared in The Big Toy Book blog in 2010.