Five tips for promoting play skills in young children with developmental disabilities



Play with your child. Get down on the floor, play with your child and just enjoy him. You are over-programming your child – you should just play with her.

Parents of young children with developmental disabilities often get this advice, but it’s easier said than done. A parent might be thinking, my child doesn’t play or perhaps I don’t know how to play with my child.

If you’re unsure how to play with your child, don’t feel bad about it. Children with developmental disabilities often need to be taught how to play. Here are five practical things you can do to help your child to develop play skills—and to help both you and your child have some fun in the process.

  1. Learn about the typical levels of play. It’s helpful to know how play skills develop as typical children grow older. All children demonstrate different levels of play at different times, but play typically follows a sequence of development in relatively predictable levels. This sequence includes, but is not limited to, manipulation of objects, pretend play, and extensive socio-dramatic play themes. Children’s earliest style of play usually involves the manipulation of objects, such as shaking a rattle, pushing buttons on a toy, or taking apart some stacking blocks and putting them back together. Then children may start to engage in pretend play and symbolic play, such as using a toy stove to “cook” a pretend meal using fake food, and then may develop extensive socio-dramatic play themes, often in partnership with other children.
  2. Understand how your child’s disability may affect their play. Any types of the more advanced play are difficult for children with developmental delays. Some types of play, such as pretend play, may be nonexistent in children with disabilities. And if you try to get your child to engage in a level of play that is beyond his or her current developmental level, you and your child are less likely to have a fun play experience.
  3. Watch what your child likes to do with the toys that you have available at home. What level of play skills does your child exhibit? Does your child enjoy dressing a baby doll because she is pretending to take care of the baby or does your child stuff the doll into a box with a pile of books? Does your child enjoy putting a puzzle together or does your child dump out the pieces over and over again? Does your child turn the knobs on the pretend stove because he understands that it represents cooking with a real stove or does your child fill the oven with magazine scraps? Does your child connect up train tracks because making an oval track is enjoyable or does your child stack the tracks in a pile? Does your child pretend to eat the plastic cupcake or does your child roll the cupcake around on the floor?

    All of these are examples of play – just at different levels. Famous developmental psychologist Piaget is often quoted for saying, “play is the work of children.” What kind of work is your child doing with the toys available to her?
  4. Join your child in playing at his or her level of play with the toys available. Let’s return to a few of the examples listed above. Does your child just want to stuff a doll into a box with a pile of books? You could encourage your child to pack a doll into a suitcase with a various doll clothes; these are similar actions but accomplished in a more meaningful way. Does your child just want to dump items out, such as the pieces of a puzzle but does not yet know how to put the puzzle together? You could enjoy doing the puzzle with your child and have your child be responsible for dumping the puzzle upside down in between turns of doing the puzzle.
  5. Select toys and play activities that are not only appropriate for your child’s developmental level, but that are also likely to appeal to their interests. For example, if you child’s play level is manipulation of objects and your child loves trains, you could allow your child to stack the train tracks into a pile (if that is what he likes to do), then encourage him to connect tracks from that pile, and finally you could model for your child how to push the train along on the tracks.

Your child’s play may look different from other children, but your child does play. Enjoy playing with your child at their level. Don’t worry about trying to introduce more complex forms of play such as pretend play to your child if those levels are not yet developmentally appropriate for your child. The purpose of playing with your child is to have fun. And you are most likely to accomplish this if you choose activities you and your child can both appreciate.

Sandra Pierce-Jordan, PhD, BCBA-D, received a bachelor’s degree from Colby College and master’s and PhD degrees from Northeastern University. She is a board-certified behavior analyst. Dr. Pierce-Jordan joined The Birchtree Center as a behavior analyst in October 2007. She has worked with children and adults with autism and Asperger’s for more than 20 years in a variety of roles, including consulting and providing direct services.

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