Children can experience a variety and/or combination of disabilities that can affect their ability to play. Disabilities can be physical, intellectual, or emotional and can range in severity from mild to profound; nevertheless, all of these children have some capacity to engage in play. Their play abilities are different and of a lower sophistication than those of their peers without disabilities, but with adaptations provided by adults and interventions to help them experience a broader range of play activities, they can benefit from opportunities to play.
It is difficult to categorize the play needs of children with disabilities because the nature of the disability and the abilities of children are unique to each individual. Children with multiple disabilities pre-sent more challenges because the interaction of disabilities impacts different developmental domains in play.
Adults play an important role in facilitating play for children with disabilities. They need to be aware of the challenges faced by each child with a disability and know how to adapt the environment and encourage the child to explore the possibilities for play. In addition, they must ensure that the child has opportunities to self-initiate play, even though adult modeling and guidance may be required before the child is able to play independently or with peers. Children without disabilities can become helpful play partners when they are knowledgeable about the nature of their friends’ disabilities and how to interact with them. With the advent of inclusion or integrated classrooms, children are more likely to have a child with disabilities in their classroom and accept them as play partners. However, they, too, might need adult guidance in how to include a child with disabilities in their play activities.
The environment plays an important role in accessibility to play for children with disabilities. The indoor environment needs to be modified to accommodate children with different disabilities. Especially important are modifications of space and accessible location of materials for children using wheelchairs and other mobility aids.
More extensive adaptations must be made in outdoor environments. In the last two decades, much progress has been made in determining the best adaptations to the outdoor environment to provide access to play components and maintain safety at the same time. Although there are no standards with the force of law, guidance for designing playscapes have been provided by the U.S. Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board and American Society for Testing and Materials.
Assistive technology has made it possible for children with disabilities to engage in play. Through the use of different levels of technology, ranging from wheelchairs to infrared control units, children with disabilities are able to access physical environments and technological devices such as computers and interactive videos. Toys can be adapted through switches and adaptations so children can activate them when their manual dexterity is severely limited, thus enabling them to participate with their peers with typical development.
In recent decades, professionals who diagnose and plan intervention programs have been using play-based assessment to determine the abilities and needs of children with disabilities. The common method of assessment has been the administration of standardized tests; however, these instruments have limitations when applied to individual children with varying types of disabilities. Moreover, play-based assessment provides a more integrated perspective of developmental domains rather than the assessment of skills in isolation. Because children can display more advanced skill development in play activities than in clinical testing, play-based assessment is being researched for its usefulness for diagnosis and intervention.
Play is important for all children. In the past, the perception has been that children with disabilities, especially children with cognitive delay, are not interested in play. Although play research on children with disabilities is lacking in some areas, much has been learned about how children with disabilities play and how their play possibilities can be expanded. As more is learned and newer advances are made in all types of play environments, more opportunities will be possible for children with disabilities to participate in childhood play.
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