How Pretend Play Helps Kids with Special Needs

play medical kit
Image via Katie Hurley

 

It’s no big secret that pretend play benefits kids in many ways.  Play provides an opportunity to try out new roles.  Play helps children work through difficult problems.  Play builds confidence and enhances learning.  And play helps build connections with both peers and family members. Play is the language of children, and play helps kids thrive.

For kids with special needs, play can do all of the above and so much more.  

4 Ways Pretend Play Helps Kids With Special Needs:

Play can assist in coping skills, social skills, and social-emotional development.  Play makes the loud and scary world that surrounds them a little less overwhelming and can help children gain mastery over their fears.

Try to find your inner child and immerse yourself in the game or story – and watch your relationship with your child grow as a result.

Practice Emotions:

Pretend play helps kids try out different emotions. 

When they engage in stories involving various characters and try on the feelings of those characters, they learn how to express different emotions (happy, sad, excited, angry, worried, etc.).

Playing out emotions helps kids realize that they are in charge of their feelings and that all feelings are acceptable.

MORE: The Best Preschool Toys for Pretend Play}

Decrease Fears:

From getting lost, to loud noises, to darkness, and beyond, kids have fears.  And fear can be crippling, particularly if a child feels a complete lack of control over the fear.  Panic can set in quickly and this makes the world feel like an overwhelming place.

Pretend play is a great way to work through, and gain mastery over, specific fears.  I once worked with a little boy who feared dogs – not because they might bite him, but because the sound of a barking dog sent him into sensory overload.  The loud noise caused him to panic and fear for his safety in some way. For months, we played out the same story over and over again about the dog that barked and the dinosaur that stopped the dog.  And then one day, he played something new.  When I asked about the dog on his way out of my office, he simply replied that he wasn’t actually that worried about dogs anymore.  He had gained mastery over his fear simply by playing his way through it.

Build Relationships:

Pretend play is a great way to connect to any child.  Although the play and story lines might be more advanced for some children than others, most children enjoy engaging in some form of play. 

It’s important to meet children where they are to help build relationships through play.  Let your child lead the play and try to mirror your child’s actions as you join.  Try to find your inner child and immerse yourself in the game or story and watch your relationship grow as a result.

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Pretend play also helps build social relationships for special needs children.  When more children are introduced into the story line to work together and play different roles, kids learn to take turns, problem solve, and bond with other kids.  And they work on conversational skills in the process.

Calm Anxieties:

Pretend play is a great way to calm anxiety about things like medical appointments, new classrooms, travel, and other big transitions.

When children practice going to the doctor or starting a new school by playing through the things that trigger feelings of anxiety, they can gain some control over these overwhelming emotions.  Taking on different roles and playing through specific scenarios over and over again helps kids understand that they can make choices that help them feel safe and secure.  And pretend play is a great way to help kids learn what to expect when faced with potentially stressful situations.

What challenges are you facing with your special needs child? 

What do you think?

How Pretend Play Helps Kids with Special Needs

Katie Hurley, LCSW is a Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist and writer in Los Angeles, CA. She is the author of "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" and "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World". She earned her BA in Psychology and Women's Studies from Boston College and her MSW from the University of Pennsylvania. She divides her time between her family, her private practice and her writing. Passionate about he ... More

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1 comment

  1. Phammom says:

    So true and well written.

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