Children with special needs are mostly no different than able-bodied kids when it comes to their need for stimulation and learning through play. The difference is that they are unable to explore their world in the same way. They rely on the adults entrusted with their care to bring the world to them, or take them out into it.
It is important to remember that ‘special needs’ are not confined to physical or other disabilities. An able-bodied child may have had a bad experience earlier in the day and may need a little extra care and encouragement to go back out into the playground. At some point we all have ‘special needs’ and need to be understood or adapt our situations.
One of the things I was conscious of when my differently-abled son was younger was that other children are always asking questions. I had to remember to answer questions that hadn’t been asked. It is the same with play. An able-bodied child will run out onto the grass barefoot on their way to the trampoline, unconsciously developing their tactile senses with the texture of the grass beneath their feet. Taking a physically challenged child onto the trampoline is fantastic – just try adding a stop along the way to run their toes through the grass, to smell a flower, listen to a cricket chirp, or admire a butterfly.
Special needs children may need a lot of help in most areas of their lives, but this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t encourage even the smallest independent acts. It is very tempting when watching a child struggle, to jump in and do it for them. While this may seem like helping, you are denying the child the opportunity to develop their problem solving skills. There is, however, a fine line between jumping in and doing something for a child that they may work out for themselves, and waiting until the point the child gives up in frustration. As minders, we need to be observant.
BE WILLING TO ADAPT
Don’t automatically rule out a particular activity because of a child’s dis-abilities – instead look for ways to adapt the activity to meet the child’s abilities. Play-table heights can be adjusted and a rim added around the edge to prevent a child accidentally knocking objects off with involuntary movements. If necessary install ramps; use supportive cushions for positioning; or lower the heights of apparatus so a wheelchair-user can reach. With a little creativity, looking past the obvious, a world of possibility opens up.
ENCOURAGE SOCIAL INCLUSION
Children are often curious about a child who is different, but this curiosity is an opportunity to bridge the gaps between able bodied and disabled children, encouraging inclusion. Children can be extremely creative in finding ways to accommodate their differently-abled peers. My son attended a school where he was the only wheelchair-bound child in a group of loving and supportive children. I arrived one afternoon to fetch him and found him in the top of the jungle gym with the other children who, with the supervision of their teacher, had worked it out between themselves to get him up there. Where inclusion is encouraged, opportunities for learning and growth are multiplied.
MONITOR HOW MUCH IS ENOUGH
All children have different levels of how much they can cope with. An able-bodied child may be able to determine this for themselves and climb off the merry go-round when they have had enough. A child with a physical and speech challenge may be unable to make this decision. My son was about two years old when I got a call at work saying he was at the emergency room after a suspected seizure while he was on a swing. Tests showed it wasn’t a seizure and the mystery was only solved some time later when I had a similar experience with him on a swing and realised it was motion sickness that caused him to ‘flop’. He had had enough fun but was unable to gauge this for himself, or for me.
As Albert Einstein said: “Most people see what is, and never see what can be.” As adults, we can become so conditioned as to our idea of ‘normal’ play that it seems a daunting task at times to adapt to what is different. We can shift our perspective slightly and instead of singling out a special needs child that needs to be included, rather focus on ourselves as adults who meet the needs of special children and create an environment that is welcoming and accessible for all levels of ability.