As an occupational therapist and mother of six, my first instinct is to set structured goals for children with special needs. Yes, goals are essential. Yet focusing on the end point can distract from the vital need to play each day. We know this intellectually, but when we’re anxious for a child to reach the next level, we can lose sight of the bigger picture. Play is central to childhood development, and play is the medium through which children achieve their goals.

Play is especially valuable in helping children with special needs engage with the world around them. Here are five ideas to incorporate a playful aspect into therapy and learning, inspired by experiences that I’ve shared with other parents.

  1. Give your child a learning context that is personally meaningful. For example, if your child loves Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, use the film’s characters to coach about emotion and to decode facial expressions. When children become familiar with characters who maintain consistent emotional states (such as Happy or Grumpy), they are better able to articulate their own emotional states. Working within your child’s framework of understanding makes it easier to teach new skills.
  2. Create a welcoming environment for learning. Clutter can be especially challenging for children with special needs, who may be sensitive to their physical surroundings. Aesthetic choices matter, too. Children with autism, for example, tend to perceive colors (particularly bold shades) with greater intensity. Invite your child to help choose a paint color for his play space, and take the time to minimize distractions before engaging in new learning activities.
  3. Take learning one step at a time. Given that many children with special needs are prone to sensory overload, move with deliberate caution when introducing new endeavors. For example, if your child is learning a song, deconstruct the steps to reduce frustration. Make it a game, and begin by helping the child master the notes, then the rhythm, then the tempo, and so forth.
  4. Create a sensory corner on a budget. Sometimes, even play needs a reboot button! By giving children a place to calm down and self-regulate, you enable coping skills and nurture independence. A sensory corner can be simple or elaborate, depending on your space and budget. For example, a pop-up tent, a portable sensory light, noise-reduction headphones, a metronome, chewies, and fidgets can safely channel energy and ease agitation.
  5. Invite your child to participate in making choices that have a direct impact. For example, if you’ve decided to purchase a type of toy or therapy equipment, ask your child to choose between styles or colors. When children are encouraged to express themselves and are heard, they are more invested in the outcome.