By Raising Children Network
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Making friends, playing and getting along with other children is good for all children, including your child with disability. You can support your child as he learns how to play and have friendships.
Two schoolgirl friends, one in a wheelchair

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Typically developing children benefit from getting to know children with disability. They can learn to be comfortable with people with disabilities, understand differences in people and be helpful.
 

Why friendship and play are good for your child

Play and friendships help your child with disability learn all kinds of skills and abilities. After all, children are fantastic teachers of other children. And playing with other kids is great just for helping your child feel good about herself.

Social-emotional development
Play and friendships help your child learn about sharing, cooperating, working out what other people are feeling and making friends with other children.

Friends are fun and can be caring too. Your child will get to know that he can rely on other children for support.

Communication
By being with other kids, your child can learn new ways of talking, listening and communicating. She can hear and see how other kids ‘use their words’ to say what they want and need when they’re together. And she can practise using her words too.

When your child feels more confident about communicating, he’s likely to get along better with other people. If he sometimes has problem behaviour, better communication skills might help.

Physical development
Friendships can encourage your child to join in with fun social physical activities such as skipping with a rope, playing with a ball, climbing or building things.

Getting involved in physical play can improve your child’s muscle tone and gross motor skills, as well as your child’s confidence.

If your child has physical disability that gets in the way of being active, a physiotherapist can help her find ways to get involved in games and sports with peers, and also to get some strength-building activities into daily life.

Practising play with your child

To play well with others, children need to be able to share, take turns, listen and be sensitive to other children’s feelings. You and your child can practise these things in your everyday play and communication together.

Your child learns a lot from watching how you talk to other people and how you act when you’re around others. When you show your child how to behave, it’s called modelling. When you talk to your friends, you can model listening, sharing, compromising, seeing things from other people’s points of view and showing empathy. For example, you can say things like, ‘Yes, let’s do it that way’ or ‘I don’t understand what you mean’.

You can help your child learn to cooperate and share by playing board games or interactive games where you have to take turns.

If waiting for a go is something your child needs to practise, you can use prompts that remind your child to wait. For example, you could use a wait card or just put your hand up to remind him. You can cut down on the prompts – for example, use a raised finger instead of a raised hand – as your child gets better at waiting for his turn.

You might like to read books with your child on play situations, or make Social Stories™ or drawings of what might happen in the playground or at child care or preschool. It can also help to talk with your child about how to deal with these situations.

Whenever you see your child sharing, taking turns or playing well in any way, you can give your child praise and encouragement. When you tell your child exactly what you liked about how she behaved, she’s more likely to behave that way again. For example, ‘It was nice that you gave the ball to Evan when it was his turn’.

Playing with other children

All kids have to learn how to play and get along with others. There are a few things you can do to make playing with others easier for your child with disability.

Choosing toys and activities
If you’re having a playdate for your child, you can help things along by choosing toys and play things that all the children will enjoy. It’s also a good idea to have some activities that you know your child can do confidently. Children are much more likely to join in when they feel confident.

For younger children, choose activities that will give them the choice of playing alone, alongside others or together. Some ideas include:

  • materials for painting and drawing
  • books, blocks and construction materials such as Duplo or Lego
  • musical instruments
  • props for imaginative or dramatic play
  • outside play, such as going for a walk.

Setting up a play area
If you’re inviting children to your house to play, setting up an area for them to play can help things go well. A spacious area that’s not too crowded works well, as do different spaces and activities so that children can either play together or alone.

Helping out if needed
Sometimes you might need to step in and help your child handle tricky situations. If you can give him some words that help him understand his feelings, it might help. For example, ‘Sally has taken your toy. It looks like you’re feeling angry. It’s OK to feel angry. Let’s see how we can help you feel better’.

You can also teach your child some basic questions and sentences to help with play. For example, ‘I would like to play with that too’, ‘Can we try doing this together?’ or ‘I don’t like it when you do that’.

Mixing and matching
It’s great for your child to be with both older and younger children as well as children the same age, and children with and without disability. It can give your child the chance to have a variety of experiences.

Check out our My Neighbourhood forums to connect with parents and children who live in your area. You can also use our forum for parents of children with disability to share information, stories and support with people in situations similar to yours.

Your expectations

Playing with other children takes physical and emotional energy, so your child might also need to spend time alone after a big play session. As your child gets better at playing with other kids over time, she’ll also naturally gain confidence.

Things won’t always go according to plan, though. We don’t all make friends with everyone we meet, or get along with everyone we know. It’s normal to worry if your child is ignored or left out, or behaves badly.

If you can make playing with other children as fun and enjoyable as possible, your child will probably want to do it again.

If you’re worried that your child might be being bullied, read our tips on how to spot if your child is being bullied and what you can do about it.

Understanding play

The way your child plays and makes friends will change through his early years. Your child learns different things from play at different ages and stages, including creativity, flexibility and problem-solving. And the more chances your child has to play, the more he can learn about how to play.

Solitary play is when children play by themselves and don’t pay attention to what others are doing. This stage typically starts from newborns to 15-17 months.

Parallel play is when children play alongside each other and might use the same or similar toys as those around them. This stage typically starts from 18-24 months.

Associative play is when children make and share things, give each other things, or join in with what other children are doing. This typically starts from three years.

Cooperative play involves joining together to do activities and working together to finish something. It might also be making up rules or playing games with rules. This typically starts happening from 3-4 years.
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  • Last Updated 13-09-2012
  • Last Reviewed 13-09-2012
  • Acknowledgements This article was developed in collaboration with Rachel McGregor, consultant psychologist, Centre for Disability Studies, Sydney.