Creative play

The value of engagement for students with disabilities through play

By Dr. Claudette Peterkin 

Playing is an important aspect of children’s development in many spheres. Many research studies have shown that playful activities are essential in developing social skills for students with disabilities. Play constitutes the basis for language, literacy and mathematic development. Children with special needs acquire and improve their communicative, social and cognitive skills, including analytical thinking and problem solving, while they play.  

When educators implement play during their lessons, students learn to interact with their peers, their environment and various objects. While students with disabilities often need additional guidance, sometimes from paraprofessionals or other educators, they should not be excluded from playing, because it provides them with valuable developmental and educational opportunities.  

One of the primary issues for children with special educational needs is difficulty with interaction within a group. Thus, social play that fosters collaboration with peers may be especially useful for them, as it develops children’s social-emotional skills. Such experiences can help children better adjust to social norms and communication rules and facilitate their social integration.  

When teachers substitute creative play for pencil and paper instruction it can also be utilized as a distinct teaching method. As educational researchers Meaghan Elizabeth Taylor and Wanda Boyer found in a 2019 study, apart from social-emotional skills, play can also develop academic skills, such as learning new words or composing a story. It is noteworthy that, unlike other teaching methods, play-based learning is equally available to all learners regardless of their abilities and backgrounds.  

Moreover, play can be applied to different domains of knowledge and development. In other words, play is a universal teaching method that can facilitate the learning process for students with special needs.  

As an educator who has worked with students from preschool through sixth grade, I have come to realize that play is a valuable tool that helps us understand children. According to researchers Amanda Passmore and Marie Tejero Hughes, playing reflects children’s preferences and developmental needs.  

It is imperative that we pay close attention to the playing behaviors of students. This helps us make the playing and learning process more efficient and beneficial for children with disabilities. This way educators can better understand the students’ strong and weak points in their development. By observing creative play activities, teachers can adjust their teaching style to accommodate the learning format to meet the students’ learning needs.  

Some students with disabilities may require extra interventions to acquire and develop necessary playing skills. I believe that creative playing activities should not be too simple and monotonous, otherwise, they would not prompt any cognitive, social-emotional or academic development.  

Play centers 

Teachers should provide a specific learning environment for children with developmental disabilities. Researchers Megan Pullum, Seth King and Krystal Kennedy note that a structured learning model might be beneficial for such learners, as it implies clear physical and visual boundaries and minimal distractions.  

A well-structured and organized playing session helps a child focus and perceive the educator’s instructions and guidance. Therefore, educators should consider the learning environment and guidance format to facilitate concentration and task comprehension for children with disabilities while playing.  

Play stations offer every student an opportunity for enjoyment and enrichment. For children with special needs, no matter their ability, play stations can be the most important, or even the only way of reaching them or helping them learn. Play activities will show you how play can help teach self-expression, communication and relaxation. Play also releases tension and improves peer interaction.  

Choosing learning stations that meet the child’s needs, and not the disability label, is crucial. In most schools, educators are increasingly pressured to address the academic needs of various students: those identified with a disability, those not diagnosed with a disability but considered at risk, those who achieve at average rates and high achievers. Playful activities can enhance the self-esteem of students with disabilities and help them develop social relationships. Students with disabilities learn how to interact, communicate, socialize and engage in age-appropriate behaviors by mimicking their nondisabled peers.    

By engaging in different play stations students with special needs can solidify and enhance their learning and may gain increased skills in several areas, including organization, responsibility, problem solving, decision making and accountability.  

Pulling it all together 

Peer-to-peer activities provide critical opportunities to bring together students with various needs. Play stations can lead to academic, social and behavioral benefits for young children with disabilities. With peer support, play stations enable students to learn new skills, engage in social opportunities, and have interactions that, over time, can contribute to meaningful changes in the school climate.   

Play is important for child development, especially for children with disabilities. It can help develop their communicative and social-emotional skills, which would provide them with more opportunities for social integration.  

Play can also be utilized as a distinct learning method available to all students regardless of their abilities. Moreover, playing reflects children’s preferences and developmental level, which may help teachers better adjust the learning process to children’s individual needs. To make the acquisition of play efficient for students with special needs, educators should prepare a learning environment with minimal distractors and a clearly structured schedule, playing activities and tasks. 

Claudette Peterkin, Ph.D., is a special education teacher at Dr. John Grieco Elementary School in Englewood. She earned her doctorate at Fairleigh Dickinson University and earned her teacher leader endorsement through the NJEA Teacher Leader Academy. She can be reached at

More to read about play 

Early Childhood Education Journal  

Exploration of Play Behaviors in an Inclusive Preschool Setting” 

Amanda Passmore and Marie Tejero Hughes  

Topics in Early Childhood Special Education  

Structured Teaching and the Play of Preschoolers with Developmental Disabilities: An Evaluation” 

Megan Pullum, Seth King and Krystal Kennedy 

Early Childhood Education Journal  

Play-Based Learning: Evidence-Based Research to Improve Children’s Learning Experiences in the Kindergarten Classroom” 

Meaghan Elizabeth Taylor and Wanda Boyer