The importance of play for children with special educational needs

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Play is not just for the very young. Georgina Durrant gives advice on how play can be integrated into other activities, and the benefits it provides.

Over the course of the pandemic there’s been a lot of concern over children with special educational needs missing out academically and whilst this may be true, I strongly believe that we need also to focus on the fact that children have also missed out on play. Playing with friends, playing outside, playing with grandparents, playing at their friend’s house…the list goes on. And whilst play might be seen as something trivial it’s actually imperative for children’s well-being and their development of important skills.

I’d go as far as saying that for young children, play is the mechanism for learning.

Play is everything, it’s squishing play dough and in turn developing those important fine motor skills that help them learn how to write. It’s walking and balancing on the equipment in the trim trail and learning how to take risks and finesse their gross motor skills. And it’s falling out with a friend over sequins and learning those really important social and language/ communication skills.

Play doesn’t come naturally to all children. By supporting them with playful activities we are helping them to play successfully with others, developing their social skills.

But what do i mean exactly by play?

There’s lots of different types of play, from sensory play to imaginative play and all types of play can benefit children’s development. And whilst play may seem like something that happens in early years education, I’d argue it is important for all children.

Sensory play (simply play that involves the senses) such as playing with sand, water etc. can be particularly calming for many children. It helps them to relax after a busy day and take time to process situations, making it fantastic for emotional regulation.

Risky play (play that involves children taking some level of freedom and risk over their play – within limits) can help children learn important problem-solving skills for later in life, develop resilience and help with concentration.

Imaginative play is wonderful for language, communication and social skills. It can also be fantastic for teachers and teaching assistants to observe – as often you get an insight into how children are feeling and the things they are worried about by seeing them act them out during play. This could be children setting up a small school with their toys and you might see for example, one of the toys not having anyone to play with at playtime – this could be a reflection of what the child is experiencing themselves (or has seen other children experience) and it can provide an opportunity to discuss this with the child.

Children’s appetite for play also has a crucial role in helping them to develop friendships – and friendships are incredibly important for children’s social and emotional wellbeing.

How can schools help children develop skills through play?

Firstly, often you don’t always need to do very much. It’s really important to provide time for free play where children can choose who and what to play with – enabling them to enjoy play and relax. Remembering that free play is important for developing skills as well as helping with mental well-being.

Provide opportunities for sensory play

One aspect of play that can be hugely beneficial for many children with or without special educational needs, is sensory play. Therefore, try to provide opportunities for sensory play activities, especially at the end of a busy day, to help children relax and regulate their emotions. This could be with sand, water, play dough – anything that involves their senses. Or for older children, this could be something as simple as relaxing music. Be led by your class, some children really benefit from sensory play, whereas for others it can be overstimulating.

Utilise imaginative play

If children in your setting are playing imaginatively, either through an activity in the lesson or during play time – take some time to observe them at play. Often it can provide an insight into their day and any concerns they have. Watch the interactions they play out with their toys for example. Use imaginative play activities to strengthen children’s language and communication skills. You may find a child is reluctant to put up their hand in a lesson, but when playing imaginatively, or taking part in an imaginative play activity as part of the lesson – they are much more encouraged to communicate.

Weave literacy and numeracy into play

It’s vital to remember that children can learn whilst they are playing. Don’t be afraid to weave literacy or numeracy learning into play-based activities. For example, if you’re playing ‘vets’ with an early years class, maybe you could help the children to make notes about the patient, draw the sign, count the patients etc. And if you’re trying to help a KS1 class learn their multiplications, make it part of a game outside in the playground.

Keep providing opportunities for fine motor skill development

Fine motor skill activities are vital for the development of the muscles in the hands and fingers needed for learning to write, do up buttons etc. Throughout early years education and KS1 there’s thankfully a big focus on fine motor and gross motor skill activities. But for many children this needs to continue into KS2 and beyond. Including play-based activities that enable children the opportunities to develop their fine motor skills can have huge benefits for their development. These could include threading beads, moulding dough and sorting small objects. Many of these activities can be incorporated seamlessly into lessons, for example during maths lessons using numeracy manipulatives not only helps children with their maths understanding but provides fine motor skills development.

Whilst there may be pressures to ensure children ‘catch up’ academically after the disruption of the pandemic. We must always do what we do best, which is putting the child at the centre of our planning and decision making. And in these circumstances, I think ensuring they can catch up on lost play is not only vital for their development and well-being but a handy tool for weaving in vital learning.

Georgina Durrant
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