Universal Design, Play Time and Motor Learning

Universal design is the idea that activities should be accessible to all people including those with disabilities.  When there are multiple ways to present, use and play with a toy, it can help benefit all children to play regardless of their abilities. 

In short, toys need to engage many senses and require variability of play.  During play time is when children learn many cognitive, social and physical skills.  This is a young child’s true classroom.

Many students with special needs require adaptations during play time in order to achieve those cognitive, social and physical skills.  Pediatric therapists are frequently called upon to offer consultation to teachers, parents and day care providers on how to include all children. 

Therapists can also apply the knowledge of motor learning theories to support children to achieve skills during play.  

Here are 5 suggestions to combine universal design, play and motor learning to allow play to be accessible to all children. 

Make sure the toys fit the skill level of the children. 

Encourage teachers, parents and day care providers to provide play toys and activities that all the children can use.  If there are toys present in the play area that a specific child can not use they will be excluded from that play time with their peers.  Some suggested toys that most children can play with are: large building blocks, Velcro blocks, bean bags, tactile balls, throwing scarves, cardboard boxes, beach balls, nesting blocks, soft clay, sand, dolls, pretend food, large cars/trucks  and electronic toys that require minimal movement.  Pretend play and imagination is so important for children.  Toys with lots of “bells and whistles” are not required to promote learning.

If necessary, modify equipment for certain children to create an inclusive environment.  For example, use a larger ball and bat for baseball or create larger target areas for throwing or kicking skills.   

Adapt the play area.

The environment where the children learn their play skills has a huge impact on how a child plays.  If the area is too large or busy it can impact the child’s attention span and focus on play.  If the area is too small children can knock over toys and bump into peers leading to frustration.  Modify the play area as needed.  High pile carpeting or mats can be difficult to walk on for children with decreased balance.  Low pile carpeting is a nice alternative to prevent falls but provide some cushion if they do occur.  Make sure all children can reach the toys.  Place toys on low shelving and have table top surfaces accessible to all.  If the children are distracted easily, limit how many toys are present in the play area to encourage sustained attention.  When all children can independently play with the environment modified, begin to eliminate some of the modifications.  This allows for the children to generalize their play skills in different situations. 

Modify the rules of games.

Some simple modification of games can allow all children to participate.  For large group games in physical education or recess, rule changes can include decreasing the size of the play area or shorter playing time.  For games that include locomotor skills, allow children to choose what skills to use.  For example, children could pick to walk, run, skip or hop.

Encourage small group play.

Occasionally try breaking up into smaller groups of children with similar abilities.  Children will feel a sense of accomplishment if they can complete the activities with ease.  When the smaller groups include children of varying levels assign partners.  Children can help to assist their partner with any physical challenges that they may not be able to do. 

Demonstrate proper play techniques to all children.

Although play should be open ended for children, at times therapists, teachers, adults or peers can provide a simple demonstration of how to use a toy or play a game properly.  Children learn by modeling, therefore by witnessing appropriate play they have an idea of what is expected.  Simplify any directions if some children have difficulties with multiple step directions.  If necessary, break down play skills into smaller chunks progressing to completing the entire activity together.  Provide minimal feedback, letting the children learn on their own in as many situations as possible.

A pediatric therapist’s job is to help children to achieve independence.  For a child, to be able to play with peers is the number one goal.  By applying the principals of universal design and motor learning, therapists can level the “playing field” for all children.

Play – Move – Develop includes 100 reproducible games and activity ideas to encourage motor skill development and learning in children. FIND OUT MORE.