Play is considered one of a child’s main occupations. The ability to play and engage in meaningful leisure activities is associated with a child’s overall growth and development and contributes to their learning and interactions with the world around them (AOTA, 2012). During warmer weather, you’ll likely head to the local park or playground with your child to encourage them to play and explore. A child with sensory differences may interpret this experience differently than other children their age. Here are a few tips to help promote your child’s engagement in play while out in their community:
1. Children play in a variety of ways. Some children seek interactions with their peers, either younger or older, while others prefer more solitary play. Encouraging appropriate social interactions is beneficial to support a child’s ability to engage in activities and their daily routine, which often includes other people and children. If your child tends to prefer to play alone, it’s important to consider the environmental and intrinsic reasons for this. Some questions to explore to understand the experience from your child’s perspective include:
- Is the game new? Do they understand the expectations or rules? One way to support your child is to model or show them how to play the game (I.e., “I am jumping on the hopscotch numbers, one foot at a time”). “First, then” language or visuals may support turn-taking or break down instructions further (“First, kickball. Then, run to 1st base”).
- Does your child know the other children playing? Meeting new people can be anxiety-provoking, so respecting your child’s choice to observe peers for a bit and then encouraging them to advocate for a turn may give them a strategy to support peer interactions.
- What does the environment look like? Can aspects of the game or environment be modified to allow your child to play in a way that provides them with the “just-right challenge” one that is not too easy but not too difficult? For example, a game of catch can take place on the pavement if your child has difficulty balancing on uneven surfaces or tolerating the tactile input from the grass.
2. Play can be hard work! Sensory breaks can support a child’s ability to participate in playground time. Some children may self-regulate by taking a break from a game when they are frustrated or overstimulated. If a child becomes overexcited during their time on the playground, they may benefit from encouragement to participate in regulating or calming activities such as: blowing bubbles, hugs, and squeezes, looking up at the sky or surrounding area to count clouds or name what they see, or having a snack or drink of water.
3. Your child may be having so much fun that leaving this preferred space can be challenging. Schedules can help. Providing your child with an age-appropriate understanding of when you will be leaving the park (e.g., using a visual picture timer or visual schedule) can support your child’s transition and lessen the anxiety they feel about leaving. Praise and high fives are helpful for expected behaviors to remind your child that they’re doing a good job following directions.
4. Don’t be afraid to play! Your child watches you to see how you are interacting with your environment. Engaging in your child’s play schema can be fun, build reciprocity, and offers the opportunity for you to model appropriate play for your child. Have fun!