Why Kids With Disabilities Need Time For Play

By Christina Elston

special needs play

Having a private skills class, such as a gymnastics class that helps your child master the monkey bars at school, can help kids with special needs feel more like everyone else. PHOTO COURTESY LEAPS N BOUNDZ

As summer winds down and the new school year gets rolling, you’re likely looking closely at your child’s schedule. If your child has a developmental or other disability, one especially important thing to schedule in is play.

Joclynn Benjamin, owner of Leaps n Boundz – which offers swimming, gymnastics and social programs for individuals of all abilities at several L.A.-area sites – says families often have few slots open for recreation. “They’ve literally scheduled these students for 40-plus hours a week of therapy,” she says. Many families start the school year with such crowded calendars that by the winter holidays, they find themselves so overwhelmed that they need to let some things go.

Therapy is work, and kids need work-life balance just like their parents do. So Benjamin urges parents to schedule free time, or even time therapy time that is focused on recreational activities. “We want to just make sure that there’s a good balance,” she says. “Have a good balance of work and play.”

Along with the benefits of physical activity, play holds an important place in the lives of kids who might have a sense they are not like everyone else. It makes them feel more normal. Learning jumping skills that will help them play hopscotch and jump rope, or mastering handball or the monkey bars, helps kids feel more at ease on the playground or in the park. “These are rites of passage,” Benjamin says. “These are things that will help individuals feel included.”

In choosing a recreational program for your child, think about what you are looking for. Do you want an individualized program to target specific skills (such as a private gymnastics session to help your child master those playground monkey bars) or a socialization opportunity, such as the chance to play on a team with others? “Look at what your goal is for that opportunity,” Benjamin says.

Some families make a habit of keeping one day free each week, so kids have time for play dates or free play. But if scheduling is an issue, you can pair a play date with a structured activity. “If you are signing up for swim class, do it with a buddy,” Benjamin suggests.

She also advocates for families to get out and have fun together. This gives kids a chance to practice some of the skills they are learning in their various therapies. So take in a sensory-friendly film, go to a play date at an accessible playground or book a vacation with a group like Autism on the Seas. Air Hollywood even offers Open Sky for Autism, a mock airport experience. “They literally go through everything that you would experience in an airport before you book that trip to the Grand Canyon,” says Benjamin.

The point is to use play as a fun way to broaden your child’s experience – and skills. “Without challenge,” Benjamin says, “there is no growth.”

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