How to play with your disabled child

See also: information on how to support your disabled child at school.

The importance of play

Play brings joy and laughter, creating happy memories for all the family. 

It also helps children engage with their surroundings, develop communication skills and self-awareness, and connect with others. It’s a fundamental part of childhood and, of course, it’s a lot of fun! 

Here at Sense, we know that many toys, equipment, playgroups and playgrounds are not accessible to children with complex disabilities such as multiple sensory impairment (MSI). 

The good news is there are countless ways your child can enjoy playing. 

A toolkit for playing with your child

	Child with family support worker

This guide is for parents of children with complex disabilities to show you the best ways to engage your child in play. 

We’ve helped parents to play with their children week in, week out since 1955. So, we know how you can use all the senses to help your child connect, communicate, learn and have fun through play. 

Here you’ll find tips and guides on making play accessible, safe and inclusive for children with complex disabilities. 

It’s brimming with tried and tested ideas that will help you and your child enjoy play for the sake of play. 

The simple, adaptable suggestions and practical tips in this guide will allow your child to make the most of playtime while developing important skills.  

Tips before you start

  • Make sure you and your child are comfortable before beginning an activity. 
  • All kids do things differently. Give your child time to respond and explore. 
  • Be in the moment. 
  • For children who are sensitive to touch, it may be helpful to introduce activities with their feet. 
  • Less is more. Take things slowly and avoid sensory overload. 
  • Be adventurous with play. 
  • Play must always be supervised.  
  • Be aware of allergies, sensitivities and choking hazards. 

Let your child lead

Child at Twiglets, Sense family centre Woodside

As adults, we can find it difficult to play. But you have the best teacher to guide you: your child! 

Try not to get hung up on rules and goals. If your child wants to dress a car up with a hat instead of pushing it, go with it.  

Follow where your child leads, even if it differs from your aim. It’s the process that’s important. Playtime will be more rewarding for both of you if you don’t get attached to an outcome. 

Give your child choice

That can be as simple as asking if they want the red or blue crayon. It could also mean offering more complex choices, such as the order to take turns in a game.  

By allowing your child to lead, you’ll also learn what your child likes and dislikes. It can also inspire youngsters to explore and express ideas in their own individual way. 

Making choices will help your child develop communication skills, confidence, independence and a sense of self, so when your child communicates their preference, always praise them for it.  

Use hand-under-hand

This is where your hand performs the activity as your child’s hand rests on top of yours. 

With the hand-under -hand approach, if your child decides they want the activity to end, they can simply take their hand away at any time. This offers choice, control and a sense of freedom. 

It’s a great approach for trying new play activities. 

Your child may be hesitant to put their hand directly on an unknown object, for example. Using hand-under-hand they can still join in. 

The technique allows them time to sense the movement of your hand, understand it is safe, and perhaps even feel comfortable enough to try it themselves, without your hand below theirs. 

Make it sensory

Boy in craft session with support worker

Senses enrich life and are vital to how we develop reasoning, intelligence, language and memory. 

Through taste, smell, touch, vision and hearing we learn about the world around us and become more engaged with the activities that we try. 

Children with sensory, learning or physical disabilities may struggle to access information. 

Those who experience difficulties processing sensory information may choose to avoid certain experiences. 

Play helps to introduce new sensory stimulus in an accessible and entertaining way. 

Avoid instructing your child on how to engage with activities. Children find their own way to enjoy sensory play, so let your child explore. 

Sensory stories

These are a great way to give sensory stimulation and develop communication in a fun way. They also make stories fully accessible. 

Telling a sensory story involves using an item to bring the tale to life. Here are some tips for how to do this: 

  • Any book can be broken down into workable parts. 
  • Each section should be a sentence or two long, and accompanied by a sensory experience.  
  • Find an item to match each part of the story. Try to use the real thing if possible. 
  • Tell the story a number of times, with consistency. This repetition promotes cognitive development and helps your child to evolve an understanding of communication. It also encourages anticipation and allows your child to express their preferences. 
  • Consider whether published stories are relevant for your child, or whether it would be better to create a personalised story. 

Messy play

A great way for your child to learn more about textures, tastes and sensations is by experiencing them through messy play. 

These activities can be presented in a number of ways, such as on sensory trays, each with a different theme.  

The links below offer step-by-step guides to lots of other messy play ideas. Remember to use edible, clean materials, and be mindful of choking hazards and allergies. 

Try one of these activities:

Make your own bubbles

Make art with ink blowing

Homemade edible fingerpaint

Textures

Introducing different textures brings more variety into play. It also exposes your child to a variety of different objects, helping them to develop preferences.  

Start with easy textures. These give your child more control over contact: 

1. Dry textures that fall away from your hand: dried rice, dry sand, dry lentils, or cotton wool.

2. Dry textures that mostly fall away but some particles or bits may stick to the hand: play dough, sterile compost, clean mud, or chalk. 

With difficult textures, your child has less control over contact: 

1. Wet textures that stick to the hand but that your child can easily break contact with, for example, by lightly wiping their hands. Examples are jelly, baked beans, wet sand, or sensitive shaving foam. 

2. Wet textures that stick to the hand and that your child has least control of breaking contact with, for example, by washing their hands. Yoghurt, finger paint, mud, Angel Delight and ice cream all fall into this category. 

You can show how textures change by starting with dried custard powder or dried shredded tissues and then adding water. 

Hand movement

With this activity, you can encourage different hand movements. These can include: 

  • A palmer grasp (squeezing toys and play dough). 
  • Using thumb and fingers (building towers of bricks). 
  • Pincer grip (popping bubble wrap). 
  • Release (placing objects in containers). 
  • Rotary action (pouring from one container to another). 
  • Finger isolation (making fingerprints in play dough). 
  • Bilateral hand use (tearing paper). 
  • Hand and finger strength (manipulating play dough). 
  • Tracking (following lines of wool). 

Resonance boards: developing self-awareness

As well as being a lot of fun to play on, resonance boards are an excellent sensory tool that will help your child develop self-awareness. 

What is a resonance board?

A resonance board is made from a thin piece of plywood that is raised slightly from the floor by a wooden frame. Any movement on the surface of the board will produce amplified sound and matching vibrations. 

Resonance boards can be expensive to buy but are easy to make if you have the time. Watch our how-to video for a step-by-step guide to making your own board.

What are the benefits of a resonance board?

Playing on a resonance board can also help your child develop an understanding of how their actions can affect other things.  

A resonance board encourages: 

  • Communication.
  • Large motor skills and mobility. 
  • Fine motor manipulation. 
  • The use of vision and hearing. 
  • Tactile and visual search. 
  • Turn-taking. 
  • Anticipation. 
  • Vocalisation and speech. 
  • Problem solving. 
  • Sequencing.
  • Cause and effect. 
  • Rhythm.
  • …the list goes on!   

Top tips for using a resonance board

A small boy with complex disabilities playing with his mum.

Remember to start slowly and assess activities by putting your own ear on the board. 

You may want to spend time introducing your child to the board before including any toys. 

Your child may not be used to a hard surface and therefore may notice parts of themselves they had not been aware of before. Make sure that they are always in their preferred position, comfortable and safe. 

Your child can be placed alone on the resonance board or use it with another child or adult if the board is strong enough. 

Standing and walking on the board barefoot can be fun, but your child could enjoy sitting or lying down on the board too. 

When selecting toys and equipment to use on the board, it’s good to think about those that will give an instant response. Items such as portable speakers, wind-up music boxes, vibrating toys, spinning tops, stringed beads and bells are all effective. 

There are various ways that toys can be used on the board. 

Lengthy items such as stringed beads can be laid over your child’s limbs, for example. 

Every time they move an arm or leg, the beads will make a sound that will be amplified by the board. 

By placing portable speakers on the board, any music or sounds you play will be amplified and accompanied by vibrations. Your phone can be used in this way too. 

Encourage exploration

Children learn through exploration and experience. Much of this takes place through play, where children can be creative, take risks and make discoveries. 

Here are some safe and easy ways to achieve this. 

Treasure baskets

This is a shallow, sturdy basket with a collection of everyday items. The idea is that children explore the basket and discover a variety of treasures. 

It brings exploration within reach of your child and gives them the opportunity to handle a range of items that they may not be able to experience unless they are brought to them. 

Items in the treasure basket should vary in weight, size, texture, colour, taste, sound and temperature – for instance: 

  • Natural objects: pebble, lemon, loofah, feathers, shells. 
  • Metal objects: spoons, keys, bells, small whisk. 
  • Brushes: paintbrush, nail brush, pastry brush, toothbrush. 
  • Textiles: velvet scrunches, silk, wool. 

A treasure basket can be adapted to suit each child’s needs. For children who are not able to sit, for instance, items can be suspended from a baby gym. 

Think about how your child might interact with the objects. It’s good to include things that rattle, fit inside each other, or that can be used to build and demolish. Typical soft toys, for example, don’t offer as much sensory feedback. 

The same concept can be used to encourage memory. By including items attached to a specific experience, your child can revisit and recollect. 

Adapt and make toys

Mainstream toys aren’t always accessible to disabled children and buying sensory toys can be expensive, but you can make simple changes to standard toys to make them more suitable for your child. 

You can also make toys out of everyday household items. 

Remember that anything homemade or adapted should always be used under supervision. Never leave a child alone with an adapted or homemade toy. Be aware of anything that could come off and become a choking hazard. 

Tips on adapting toys 

Keep it simple. 

  • Tailor it to your child’s needs. 
  • Try adding a tactile element. 
  • You may want to enlarge features to make it easier for your child to interact with. 
  • Think about whether there are any unnecessary features or distractions that can be removed. 

Using everyday household items

  • Pots, pans with lids, and a choice of wooden spoons can be used to make noise. 
  • Add ‘clean mud’ (tissue paper and brown paint) to pots and pans for messy play. 
  • Items like sieves can be fun to look through. 
  • Fill rubber washing up gloves with beans or liquid cornflour.
  • Put some bells in a secure bag and squeeze into a kitchen whisk to create a shaker.  

Inclusive play and siblings

Children connect and bond through play and there are lots of ways of encouraging this. 

You can adapt activities to include turn-taking. For example, children can take turns to tap rhythms on a resonance board or roll tactile balls across a board or floor to each other. 

Tailoring play to include the way your child communicates is important. Learning to communicate as a family is a great bonding experience, especially for siblings

Play activities can include both informal and formal communication methods. 

Remember: inclusion should work both ways. It allows children to get involved in each other’s favourite activities and create new things together. 

Making a cardboard box den

Den making is a great inclusive activity. 

By making a safe den that is exciting and inviting, other siblings can and will want to join in. 

Children who might find it easier can help to create the den for their siblings. 

Dens are also extremely adaptable. For example, you can make a den by attaching an umbrella to supported seating or a wheelchair. 

Here’s how to make one of your own:

  • Use a large cardboard box that is either lined with black paper or painted black inside. 
  • Punch holes in the top of the box and press some battery-operated fibre optic or LED fairy lights against the holes to create a starry sky effect. 
  • Use different tactile elements to create panels that slip into the sides and the back – these can be attached and moved around as needed. 
  • You can add other elements, such as lights and torches, but remember not to overload the space with too much stimulus. 

Big Mack switch

A Big Mack switch can help get everyone involved in play.  

It is an electronic device that makes it easy to record speech, music or any other sound to be played back at the right time. 

Playing outside your home

Most of the tips and techniques in our toolkit can be enjoyed away from home with little or no adaptation. 

Whether you’re visiting friends and family or heading outdoors, consider taking some of your play accessories with you. 

Take it outside

Outdoor play is essential to the healthy physical, social and emotional development of all children. 

Having an awareness and connection with nature enhances appreciation and wellbeing for children and adults alike. 

Children with complex disabilities especially receive help from exploring sights, smells, textures and sounds in natural environments. The opportunity to play freely helps to develop confidence and self-esteem, too.  

The play activities described in this toolkit can all be enjoyed outdoors. 

For example, messy play using sensory trays can be great fun outside. 

Simply being out in the open air can be very relaxing, which is important for both you and your child. 

On a warm day, lay your child down on a blanket, under a tree. 

  • They can look at the leaves, hear them rustle, and feel the breeze in the shade. Lie down with your child too, if it’s possible. 
  • Try hanging different coloured scarves, textured materials or wind chimes on the branches, if your environment allows. 
  • Set up a choice of sensory trays, each with a different theme, for your child to explore. 
  • If you have a private outdoor area, think about leaving these outside at the end of playtime so you can come back them another time. This creates open-ended play.  

For children who are less mobile or reluctant to explore, sensory trays can be a good way to introduce natural items. 

This can include sterile compost or ‘clean mud’ (made from toilet paper or tissues and brown paint), sticks, leaves, clean feathers and clean large stones. 

Sensory trays always require supervision. Be mindful of hygiene, sensitivities and choking hazards. 

Play in hospital

If your child is spending time in hospital, think about what play resources could be made available. 

Doctors, nurses and therapists appreciate the importance of play, so are likely to be open to facilitating suitable activities that will be engaging and rewarding for you and your child.  

Keep in mind: 

  • The hospital play worker or therapist will be able to provide toys that are suitable for your child. It might also be possible for your child’s favourite toys to be brought to the ward from home if protocol allows this. Ask if in doubt. 
  • Remember that anything brought into the hospital needs to be reviewed for suitability in a sterile environment. It’s also best to avoid toys that need to be plugged into an electrical socket. 
  • It may not be possible to bring lots of toys to the ward but there are practical nursing items that can be adapted to make excellent sterile playthings. For example: 
    • Blow up a rubber glove and draw a face on it or fill it with water.
    • Try tapping rhythms on a disposable paper bowl.
    • Survival blankets are shiny, have an interesting texture and make a nice sound. You can take turns scrunching a corner. 
  • ‘I’ve been GOOD!’ (or similar) stickers can make you very popular! 
  • ‘Beads of Courage’ recognise your child’s journey and can support them to talk about it. Visit the Beads of Courage website to find out more. 
  • If your child needs a quiet space, it is always worth asking if a room is available. 

Know your rights

We want to make sure that you, as parents, know your rights and understand what you and your child are legally entitled to. 

There are legal requirements around play for disabled children, set out in the Equality Act 2010. It gives legal protection to disabled children and families looking to access play services. 

Public bodies that provide play facilities must also comply with the public sector equality duty set out in the Equality Act 2010, for example. 

The Equality and Human Rights Commission gives guidance on its website about legal requirements in relation to discrimination, reasonable adjustment and the public sector equality duty. 

Find out more about your rights in public play settings.

Risk, health and safety

Health and safety are important and must always be considered. 

At Sense we recognise that achieving a balance between protecting children from serious risk and allowing them to reap the benefits of play isn’t always easy. We also know that the opportunity for play develops a child’s risk awareness and prepares them for their future lives.  

Play allows children to explore and understand their abilities. It helps them to learn and develop while exposing them to the realities of the world in which they will live. While it may be impossible to completely eradicate even the smallest danger, constant supervision and awareness of potential hazards help to manage the risk. 

Get support from Sense

If you have a child with complex disabilities and would like support from Sense, please reach out to our friendly team.

This content was last reviewed in April 2022. We’ll review it again next year.