A few years ago, I witnessed two children learning to play with each other without language. One had limited mobility and normally communicated through sign-language, while the other was Haitian and didn’t understand English. Yet despite the challenge this could present, these two children didn’t seem to care. They played like they had known each other their entire lives. They found away to communicate and play without support from anyone else. Moral of the story: If we get rid of our barriers, our children won’t have them either.
1. Communicate. Often children with special needs can still indicate their interests and make choices. Ask the child or their parent what things they like to do and discuss any accessibility concerns. This will make your life much easier instead of focusing on the barriers of what they can’t do together. For example: if the child is non-verbal or has limited communication, ask the parent if there are ways to communicate and what types of things their child enjoys. Chances are that parent is going to love helping the children play and will not mind the questions. Beware of getting too personal though. That child’s health history, etc., is none of your business.
2. Ask your child. “Have you seen things Jimmy likes to do?” This is probably better than asking “what do you think Jimmy would like to do” since a child is often going to respond by providing his or her favourite things instead of Jimmy’s. Many children already recognize what another child’s interests are just by watching, at school or other places. Still a word of caution, some children come up with their own conclusions on things a child can’t do when in fact they probably can.
3. Find the fail-safe options and expand them. Think of things all kids like that are simple and easy. For instance: most young children love bubbles or balloons. Make a game out of bubbles (example: one person blows into the wind and the others chase with their various wheels (bikes, scooters, wheelchairs). Parachute play is particularly good with children with disabilities.
4. Get artistic. Even if a child with different needs can’t hold a crayon correctly it doesn’t mean they can’t create. There are hundreds of ways of creating art projects children can do together. Try putting cheap coloured hair gel in a zip lock bag to create pictures with their fingers.
5. Encourage interaction. If one child is having difficulty, encourage another to be a teacher or helper and do the project together. Figure out what part each can play in creating something. Perhaps if it’s a puppet show, it may be as simple as one person is the puppet master, one is the puppet voices, or one is the audience. Making sock puppets together is also a hit.
6. Shake it up. Always have a few ideas for the play date as children will become disinterested. A child with disabilities may take longer than their peers or need to do activities differently. Their friends may get bored faster so be prepared. Know that you will likely be the facilitator that helps the children interact and have fun.
7. Keep it simple. Often the easiest forms of play are the best. Examples: Some children unable to walk still like to be on a trampoline while their friends lightly bounce. If the child has a special needs bike or can they wheel, a ride is always good shared with friends.
8. Plan an outing. Most children love movies, bowling, splash parks, picnics or petting zoos. Theatres, bowling alleys and parks are often accessible however, be prepared for the parent of the child with disabilities to tag along as an accessible vehicle may be required. If the child is Autistic or can become over stimulated, ask the parent what is best for their child.
9. Enlist some furry friends. Pets are a pleasure for just about any child. Whether it’s the hamster in the ball, the dog with his squeaky toy or the cat with the yarn, it’s sure to bring some fun and smiles. Be sure there are no allergy issues.
10. See the child. Many people avoid things that are unfamiliar to them. Fear is not the answer and only breeds ignorance and discrimination. Look beyond their disability and know that they are just a child like any other. They have likes, dislikes, characters, bad and good behaviours. They can still scam you with their cuteness factor or drive you nuts with their impatience. They are children who deserve to play and live like any other. They are little souls to love, teach and learn from. It’s a rewarding experience that I highly recommend.
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