Anyone who works with children knows and often speaks to the importance of play - Pediatricians, therapists, educators, daycare providers may all come from different specialties but they all recognize that play supports a child's cognitive development and social skills.
Problem solving, critical thinking, imagination, planning, attention, emotional regulation, language, and reciprocity - - these are all developmental skills that are worthy of in-depth discussion, but that's another blog article for another day. For now, let's just agree that the stages of play are critical to our development as children, young adults, and fully-functioning adults!
Ask yourself this question:
How do you adapt play to meet the needs of differently-abled children who, for whatever reason - physical, motor, cognitive, or developmental delay, cannot successfully play with their same-aged peers?
If you're a pediatric occupational therapist, like me, this is a primary focus of therapeutic intervention. OTs work on skills, supports, and strategies to enable participation in a child's daily occupation - play!
When you consider the different stages of play (Unoccupied, Solitary, Onlooker, Parallel, Associative, Cooperative), children are expected to demonstrate varied degrees of motor, cognitive, and attention skills to successfully engage in a play activity.
For example, a child who is engaging in 'unoccupied play' may be an infant reaching for a dangling toy overhead. If that child is visually impaired, how would she explore that toy? What would make the activity successful? If that same child has cerebral palsy and limited use of her hands, what would participation look like?
Now ask yourself, if that child with a disability did not acquire the skills associated with that play stage, what would happen? With a therapeutic perspective on participation, would she be able to engage like her same-aged peers?
For every task, and every stage of play, and every disability or delay, there is the potential for adaptations and accommodations.
Assistive Technology & Play
For some children with disabilities, there is a need for modified toys and accommodations so they can participate to the fullest extent possible. These tools and supports are referred to as 'assistive technology' and, while you may have heard the term discussed for school and work environments, the application of simple AT tools is a very appropriate consideration to support play.
Assistive technology (AT) is any product, equipment, software program and/or system that enhances learning, working, and daily living for persons with disabilities. The goal of assistive technology is to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of people with disabilities (ATIA). When a child's daily occupation is play, the goal of assistive technology is to maximize participation in play activities!
Assistive technology can range from low-tech supports like adapted crayon and scissors, to mid-tech tools like single message communication "buttons" so kids can ask for help, make a comment, or request 'more.' The majority of AT supports for play will fall into these two categories, but some children with more complex needs will need high-tech supports for play that use computer-based systems for participation.
Adapting Play For Different Abilities
For children with severe cognitive disabilities, fine or gross motor skill deficits, and sensory-based disabilities (vision, hearing), a common assistive technology tool is a switch.
By connecting a switch to a favorite battery-operated toy, or electrically-wired "appliance" (think radio, bubble machine, or train track), children with limited motor skills can control their toys just as their peers would! In some cases, the toy the child is exploring acts as a switch that activates music or lights for additional sensory feedback.
Accessibility and Inclusion in Play
Luckily for therapists, educators, and children with differing abilities, there are numerous resources that focus on supporting inclusion in play through accessibility.
The Simon Technology Center of the Pacer Center has published numerous resources to support the participation of children in adapted play activities.
The Let's Participate program, funded by the U.S. Department of Education, uses assistive technology to help young children with disabilities participate, develop, and grow. Their online resources can help early childhood programs build capacity to meet the needs of all young learners.
As your child progresses through the developmental stages of play, he is refining and developing critical skills that we all need as fully functioning adults. If a child has a disability that limits his participation in typical play activities, he may not develop those critical skills as his typical peers would. In order to maximize a child's participation in play activities, assistive technology supports may be needed and should be considered. The ultimate goal is to make it possible for children of all abilities to be included and supported through all of the stages of play!