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Playtime for Children With Physical Disabilities

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WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Playing is crucial to healthy development and for building strong parent-child bonds. It's equally important if your child has a physical disability, such as a hearing impairment, vision difficulties or blindness, muscular dystrophy, and so on.

WebMD consulted child life specialists and experts to help you find guidance about playing with your physically disabled child. Here you’ll find their tips on play and age-specific suggestions for physically disabled children, from newborns to age 6.

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What Is the Purpose of Playing?

Playing helps children learn, but in a relaxed and fun environment.

According to Stephanie Pratola, PhD, a registered play therapist and clinical psychologist in Salem, Va., playing also helps to form important attachments. So it’s important for you to play with your child often in order to improve your relationship and help him cope with his physical challenges.

Think "Inclusion" and "Adaptation"

Don't automatically rule out play activities due to your child's physical disability. ''Any sort of play material can be adapted," says Sara Doschadis, a certified child life specialist at Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt in Nashville, Tenn. For instance, a handle on a paintbrush can be extended to help a child with below-average hand coordination. A basketball hoop can be lowered to accommodate a child in a wheelchair. A table height can also be changed to accommodate a wheelchair. Your child's physical or occupational therapist can help you with suggestions for play adaptation.

Resist the urge to jump in right away and help your physically challenged child manipulate a toy, Pratola says. "You have to coach parents when to hang back and let the kid struggle with the toy. There's a fine line ... you have to learn what that is."

On the other hand, she says, you don't want to let your child's frustration with the toy be so overwhelming it's not fun anymore. “[Let] the play be theirs, so that they feel ownership. ... Help them overcome obstacles without doing it for them."

Tap Into Your Child's Imagination

Pratola remembers a child with a spinal cord injury who came to her for help with recovery. ''Play was so important to her," she says. "In her imagination she could do anything." While in real life, the little girl was paralyzed, in playing, the figure she identified with was very active, Pratola says, always running or jumping.

Be in the Moment

When parents play with their children, they tend to think they should be working toward a goal or something measurable. But Pratola persuades parents to think of play differently. Instead of focusing on a goal, simply give your child an opportunity for play. Follow your child’s lead for what they want to play, which is basically what they want to learn. And just enjoy the time together, she says.

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