Why friendship and play are good for children with disability
Play is central to learning and development for all children. Play and friendship help children with disability learn skills and abilities, including social-emotional, communication and physical skills.
Playing with others can help children with disability have fun and feel included, supported and cared for. This can be great for their self-esteem.
How children with disability learn and develop through play with others
Play and friendships help your child learn about sharing, being patient, cooperating, solving problems, working out what other children are feeling and making friends with other children.
Some children with disability might use speech, signing, gestures or communication devices. By being with other children, children with disability can learn new ways of talking, listening and communicating. For example, your child can hear and see how other children use words and gestures to say what they want. And your child can practise using words and gestures too. And other children can learn how your child communicates, which can help your child communicate with them.
Stronger communication skills will help your child express themselves, regulate their emotions and behaviour, and feel confident. This can help them make friends more easily.
If your child’s disability makes it hard for them to communicate, a speech pathologist might be able to help.
Friendships can encourage your child to join in with fun social physical activities like running, jumping, throwing balls, dancing, climbing or building things. Getting involved in physical play can improve your child’s physical fitness and skills, as well as their confidence, self-esteem and sense of belonging.
If your child has a physical disability that makes it hard to be active, a physiotherapist or occupational therapist can help your child find ways to get involved in movement, games and sports with peers.
Practising play with children with disability
You can help your child practise skills for playing well with others through your everyday play and communication together. This includes skills like sharing, taking turns, listening and being sensitive to other children’s feelings.
You can do this by being a role model. By listening, sharing, compromising, seeing things from other people’s points of view and showing empathy, you show your child positive ways to interact with others. For example, you can say things like, ‘Yes, let’s do it that way’, ‘I would like a turn, please’ or ‘I don’t understand what you mean’.
Playing board games or interactive games is a great way to help your child learn to cooperate, share and take turns. For example, if waiting for a turn is something your child needs to practise, you can remind your child to wait by using a wait card or by just holding up your hand. As your child gets better at waiting for turns, you can cut down on the prompts by using a raised finger instead of a raised hand.
And you can 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, your child is 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 others: making it easier for children with disability
All children 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 children with disability.
Choosing toys and activities
If you’re having a playdate for your child, you can help things along by choosing toys and activities that children of diverse abilities 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, try activities that give them the choice of playing alone, alongside others or together. Some ideas include:
- materials for painting and drawing
- books, blocks and construction materials like Duplo or Lego
- musical instruments
- props for imaginative or dramatic play
- outside play.
Setting up a play area
If you’re inviting children to your house to play, setting up a play area for them 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 your child some words that help with understanding 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 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 all children, including children with disability, to be with older and younger children, children the same age, and children with and without disability. This can give your child the chance to have a variety of play experiences and develop patience, acceptance and an understanding of diversity.
If play doesn’t go to plan
Things probably won’t always go according to plan. We don’t 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 finds it hard to play with others.
Try to make playing with other children as fun, calm and enjoyable as possible.
Note that playing with other children takes physical and emotional energy, so your child might need to spend time alone after a big play session. As your child gets better at playing with other children over time, they’ll naturally gain confidence and independence.
If you’re worried that your child might be being bullied, read our tips on how to spot the signs of bullying and what you can do about it.
The way your child plays and makes friends will change through early childhood. Children learn 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 your child 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 goes up to 15-17 months. It can last longer for children with disability.
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 at 18-24 months, but it can be later for children with disability.
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 around 3 years, but it might be later for children with disability.
Cooperative play is when children join together to do activities and work together to finish something. It might also be making up rules or playing games with rules. This typically starts happening at 3-4 years, but it might be later for children with disability.
Children with disability might move through these stages more slowly than typically developing children. This can be because their development is delayed or because they haven’t had the same play opportunities as typically developing children. For example, a child with a significant motor disability might find it physically difficult to play alongside other children, give things to other children and join in with activities.