Georgina Durrant is a former teacher/SENDCO now private tutor (online) for children with Special Educational Needs. She is author of ‘100 Ways Your Child Can Learn Through Play’, a book packed full of play based learning activities, published by JKP for parents of children with SEN. It has been endorsed by celebrity SEN parents Carol Vorderman and Rob Delaney! She’s also founder of the SEN Resources Blog which shares her activity ideas, advice and recommended resources for parents and teachers. 

Over the course of the pandemic there’s been a lot of concern over children with special educational needs missing out academically and whilst this may be true, I strongly believe that we need also to focus on the fact that children have also missed out on play. Playing with friends, playing outside, playing with grandparents, playing at their friend’s house…the list goes on. And whilst play might be seen as something trivial it’s actually imperative for children’s well-being and their development of important skills. I’d go as far as saying that for young children, play is learning and learning is play

Play is everything, it’s squishing play dough and in turn developing those important fine motor skills that help them learn how to write. It’s walking and balancing on that fallen log in the park and learning how to take risks and finesse their gross motor skills. And it’s falling out with a friend over sequins and learning those really important social skills and language/communication skills

I’m so passionate about the importance of play based activities helping develop skills that during the first lockdown (whilst juggling home schooling!) I wrote my first ever book on the topic: ‘100 Ways Your Child Can Learn Through Play’ Through my book I share a vast range of fun activities that children of all abilities can join in with, to help them develop vital skills (fine motor, gross motor, social skills, working memory, language and communication, literacy/numeracy, concentration, problem solving, emotional regulation and sensory integration)  The idea was that it would empower parents to feel less guilty that their child was just  playing and instead feel confident that their child is in fact learning a whole range of things through play. I also wanted to help parents who might have been told an area that their child needed extra support with (for example language and communication) but weren’t sure how  they could help them at home. The book has a little tick box at the end of each activity highlighting which skills that activity helps develop.  

But what do I mean exactly by play?

There’s lots of different types of play, from sensory play to imaginative play and all types of play can benefit children’s development. 

Sensory play (simply play that involves the senses) such as playing with sand, water etc. can be particularly calming for many children, helping them to relax after a busy day and take time to process situations. Making it fantastic for sensory integration and emotional regulation. 

Risky play (play that involves children taking some level of freedom and risk over their play..within limits) can help children learn important problem-solving skills for later in life, develop resilience and help with concentration. 

Imaginative play is wonderful for language and communication skills and social skills. It can also be fantastic for families and teachers to observe- as often you get an insight into how children are feeling and the things they are worried about by seeing them act them out during play. This could be children setting up a small school with their toys and you might see for example, one of the toys not having anyone to play with at playtime- this could be a reflection of what your child is experiencing themselves (or has seen other children experience) and it can provide an opportunity to discuss this with your child.  

Children’s appetite for play also has a crucial role in helping them to develop friendships- and friendships are incredibly important for children’s social and emotional well being. 

So how can families help their children develop skills through play?

Firstly, often you don’t always need to do very much. It’s really important to provide time for free play where your child can choose what to play with- enabling them to enjoy play and relax. Remembering that free play is important for developing skills as well as helping with mental well-being. 

Provide opportunities for sensory play activities, especially after a busy day, to help your child relax and regulate their emotions. This could be with sand, water, play dough- anything that involves their senses. Be led by your child, some children really benefit from sensory play, whereas for others it can have a more stimulating effect.  

Observe your child when they are playing imaginatively, often it can provide an insight into their day and any concerns they have. Watch the interactions they play out with their toys for example. And use imaginative play activities to strengthen your child’s language and communication skills ‘talking’ as the toys. 

Don’t be afraid to weave into activities literacy, numeracy and motor skill activities. For example, if you’re playing ‘vets’ maybe you could help your child to make notes about the patient, draw the sign, count the patients etc. 

Lastly, my biggest piece of advice would be, to play too! Not only do children love it when their grown ups join in, but its actually really good for us too!

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