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Adaptive Play and Assistive Technology

Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.
- Fred Rogers

What is Adaptive Play?

Adaptive play lets a child with limited function in abilities such as movement, speech, eyesight, hearing, comprehension, or communication play more fully. It may involve customizing toys, using adaptive equipment, accessing assistive technologies, making new ways to play, and using the setting. Play can be adapted for your child at home, in the community, or while in the hospital.

Adaptive Play at Home

Many children with special health care needs find a great comfort at home, and being able to play and be themselves feels great. Some ideas for improving the fun are:
  • Add a Switch: Modifying a favorite toy, such as one that talks or lights up, with a switch is a common way to allow a child with motor skill challenges to start the toy easily. Instead of pushing small buttons on the toy, which calls for fine motor skill, the switch is linked with a large, hand-sized button to the toy.
  • Add Some Stick: Some children might have the skills to play with a toy, but their gross motor skills make their arms push too hard, which causes the toy to slide away. Buying a roll of no-slip drawer liner and cutting it to fit the bottom of the toy, to make it stick, can sometimes do the trick.
  • Hi-Tech: Communication devices, such as an iPad or tablet, can be used at home to communicate the child’s needs and wants. If you are teaching your child to use the device and you need a reward system, you can reward them with a special app that they love (a music app, fireworks app, or a stream of their favorite show, and so on).
  • Ask for Help: Many states have assistive technology centers where you can call and ask for help. These places often have innovative staff who love to make new experiences for children and adults with disabilities.
  • Buying: There are also websites that sell pre-made adaptive toys of all kinds.

Adaptive Play in the Community

Whether your child likes sports, dance, or art, there are many local and state programs for children with special health care needs.
  • Sports: Many states have groups with adaptive sports for children and adults with disabilities. Special Olympics, Paralympics, adaptive baseball, basketball, swimming, and soccer are just a few. The best way to find these programs is to do a web search for them in your state.
  • Playgrounds: All over the country, cities and counties are now seeing the need to offer adaptive equipment in playgrounds like wheelchair swings, supportive swings, and wheelchair-friendly splash pads. Check with your county parks and see what they have to offer. If there is nothing in your county, you can reach out to the county board, let them know this is a need, and talk about what it would take to make your parks accessible.
  • The Arts: Children of all ages and abilities love the arts. Each state has accessible art programs that use adaptations and creative solutions that allow children to take part in dance, music, painting, and more. Also see Fine Arts programs by state.

Adaptive Play in the Hospital

Adaptive Play boy playing
Photo courtesy of Tina Persels

For children who are hospitalized, play can offer a much needed break from procedures, pain, and boredom. Children with limited motor function, vision and hearing impairments, and other disabilities can benefit from assistive technology (i.e., any item, whether acquired commercially or changed, which is used to keep up or help the capabilities of a child with a disability) and adapted play in the hospital setting.
  • Child Life Teams: Children’s hospitals (and sometimes adult hospitals) have Child Life teams that visit with children and their families, ask about their hobbies, and give them activities that involve playing with toys, listening to music, making art, and playing games. Some hospitals also have a stock of adaptive toys for children who are not able to play with regular toys. If your child is inpatient, ask your nurse if the Child Life team has adaptive toys and activities for your child. See page Child Life Services .
Whatever the setting may be, children are usually ready to play. Some are just waiting for the chance to do so. Get out your duct tape, search how to adapt toys, find a website that sells them, call your local assistive technology center . . . whatever it is you need to do will be well worth it when your child lights up because they can play.

Resources

Information & Support

For Parents and Patients

Fine Arts programs by state
The Kennedy Center's Very Special Arts affiliate states.

National Lekotek Center
An organization promoting play and toys for children with special healthcare needs. These centers offer a toy lending library, computer play, family play, and other programs.

Specialneedstoys.com
A great source for adapted toys, including sensory toys for every occasion, and specials on certain items.

Services Nationwide

Select services for a specific state: ID, MT, NM, NV, RI, UT

Rehabilitation / Habilitation Services

See all Rehabilitation / Habilitation Services services providers (3) in our database.

For other services related to this condition, browse our Services categories or search our database.

Authors & Reviewers

Initial publication: August 2016; last update/revision: January 2019
Current Authors and Reviewers:
Author: Tina Persels
Reviewer: Shena McAuliffe, MFA