How play helps children with disabilities express, understand feelings

'Certain things you might have done in person, you're not going to be able to do online,' therapist says
By: | March 5, 2021

Young children with disabilities, including autism, who have experienced loss or increased anxiety and stress during the pandemic may benefit from some play with a purpose.

But using certain techniques inspired by play therapy may not be an option while children are learning remotely. Instead, school psychologists may have to use some strategies virtually that are based on best practices in play therapy to ensure children continue to learn.

“You have to be more mindful because there are just toys and materials you’re not going to be able to use because the child is not going to have them at home and is not going to be able to get them,” said Robert Jason Grant, a registered play therapist supervisor and owner of the AutPlay Therapy Clinic in Springfield, Missouri. “Certain things you might have done in person, you’re not going to be able to do online.”

School psychologists can use these techniques based on play therapy techniques to help young children with disabilities communicate and connect despite learning remotely:

Play therapy strategies that work for remote learning

Share feelings. Ask the child to work on feelings, Grant said. Have the child choose two feelings, and you, the school psychologist, choose one feeling.

Ask the child to look around his house briefly for one item to represent each feeling and bring the items back. The school psychologist can do the same. Take turns sharing what you found and why you chose that item to represent each feeling.

Ensure the child knows they can get anything they wants, such as a blanket or stuffed animal. The item doesn’t have to be a toy.

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At the same time that you are seeing the child’s understanding of and ability to express feelings, you are also working on the skills of taking turns and taking another person’s perspective.

“I’m always thinking about the layering,” Grant said. “I’m modeling because I’m sharing my feelings. I’m tapping into a few things that the child needs to work on.”

Engage in interactive, creative activities, games. Explore what features your videoconference platform offers for interactive activities, Grant said. Also, look into apps that work with your platform.

Grant uses an app that allows him and a child to draw things at the same time on the screen. Grant said you and the student can draw something specific or draw freely together.

You can also share your screen and do online activities and games together, Grant said. For example, you can share an online sand tray. “You and the child can go onto the same sand tray and work on it together,” he said. “It’s really cool.”

Use bibliotherapy. Find videos online of books being read aloud and choose a book related to what you want to talk about with the child, such as helping him understand his disability, Grant said.

Share your screen so the child and you can watch the video together. “I can pull up the book, we can watch it being read, then we can talk about it afterwards,” he said. “I can ask if the child saw anything that reminded them of them.”

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You can also use online bibliotherapy to help an unsettled child relax, Grant said. For example, you can find a book online about mindfulness and practice techniques with the child.

Involve parents when necessary. Children with disabilities, such as autism, who have more significant needs may not be able to independently participate in remote play-based activities, Grant said. If the child is nonverbal or does not engage readily in the virtual format, take time to teach the parent the techniques you want to use with the child.

“I teach the parent some kind of play to do with the child and observe the parent doing it and give feedback,” he said. “I have to have parent involvement for it to work.”

The child may not pay much attention to you or look at the screen, Grant said, but if the parent is focused on what you’re doing and saying and trying it with the child, then it can be effective.

Cara Nissman covers autism, school psychology, and IEP team issues for LRP Publications.