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A Photo Essay

Jean Piaget, the Swiss psychologist renowned for his theory on the way cognitive or intellectual processes develop in children, wrote that “Play is the work of childhood” – what appears to be frivolous fun and games to the casual observer, is in fact a vital, engaging and authentic learning experience for the child.

Play is children’s natural medium of expression, through which they interact and communicate with themselves and the world. It’s so integral to healthy development, right up there with broccoli, sunlight and sleep, that the United Nations lists it as a basic right of every child.

So much happens when children play. They figure out how things work, how to solve problems, make friends, and develop their bodies as they engage a variety of learning modes – auditory, visual, kinaesthetic – simultaneously. In play, they observe, hear, listen and manipulate materials at the same time, which helps them acquire and retain information at the same time.

Variety is key when it comes to playthings but the assortment needn’t be bottomless or expensive. Everyday objects like pots, pans, spoons, boxes (the better to make a cave of!), and old clothes for dress-up are all wonderful playthings. Any objects that are safe for a child to handle, developmentally appropriate and interesting, can reinforce existing skills and help her acquire new ones.

Infants with disabilities enjoy being played with just like any other child. They like being hugged and cuddled, read and sung to, and shown pictures. Babies who’re consistently shown love and care become securely attached to their caregivers and tend to be more adventurous in their play and exploration.

Play is especially necessary for disabled children, who often have delays in their play skills and need additional support to advance their motor, cognitive, communication, social and emotional development. That’s why it’s essential to have inclusive play opportunities that are diverse and flexible to allow children of all abilities and backgrounds to participate. Of course, every element in the playroom or playground needn’t be accessible to every child, but the combination of experiences on offer must add up to something special for each of them.

Pretend play – imagining they’re superheroes, using toys and objects in imaginative ways or taking on roles as if they’re real – begins at about 18 months in typically developing children, and goes on to age 10—12.

Imagination-driven play builds skills in many essential developmental areas. Children use words and language to enact a story. By pretending to be different characters, they can be someone else and understand how they feel, which builds social skills and empathy. In navigating the ‘situations’ that crop up in the lives of their characters, they build creativity, problem-solving and thinking skills that they’ll use all their lives.

Pretend play may not come naturally to neurodiverse and disabled children with social, cognitive or language deficits. But just because a child can’t play with a toy yet doesn’t mean he’ll never be able to. Talking with the child, letting him observe his caregivers while they go about their day and having a variety of open-ended toys on hand can gradually lead to imaginative play. The more laughter and silliness involved, the better. Play’s all about having fun!

Getting messy is a blast for most children, and where better to get messy than the great outdoors? Outside is as good a place as the classroom to hone a child’s cognitive skills, with endless opportunities for exploration and adventure. Outdoors, they have the freedom to run, jump, kick, throw and burn pent-up energy, testing their physical limits, challenging their endurance, exercizing their imagination and building their self-confidence in the process.

Being in natural environments also lends a plethora of mental health benefits too. Listening to the breeze, smelling the flowers, looking at the birds, and turning over rocks to see what lies beneath can be quite magical experiences that help children relax and feel calm.

Swings are fun for all children. Nature walks with lots of chatting about the scenery and collecting things along the way provide invaluable sensory inputs. And what better than a picnic to break out of the normal routine and get some fresh air and exercize!

It can feel challenging to engage disabled children in outdoor activities but it’s critical to their learning and skill-building. It also makes it easier for them to make friends and practice social interactions in a low-pressure setting.

Playing together teaches children to forge connections, share, and resolve conflicts democratically. They learn that life’s more fun if they’re fair and cooperative rather than bossy or aggressive. They learn to negotiate, accommodate and advocate for themselves – all essential skills for a fulfilling life.

Puzzles help children develop a range of physical and cognitive skills. By picking up and matching pieces, they improve their fine motor skills, spatial awareness and hand-eye coordination. They develop their reasoning and decision-making skills, and learn the value of persistence as every piece fitted in takes them closer to the ‘big picture’.

The freedom to manipulate different materials through art is a great way for children to explore and experiment. The variety of art materials, forms and techniques contributes to their mental, physical and emotional development in a myriad of ways. Drawing and painting help improve fine motor skills. By thinking about who she’s going to put into her family portrait, a child learns to plan and follow through. By thinking about the colors she’ll use to paint her house, she learns to observe and develop artistry as she mixes colors.

Albert Einstein described imagination as “everything”. A good book opens doors to worlds previously unimagined, sparking creativity, joy and playfulness. Picture books can be read aloud to younger children and work as a springboard to art and craft, dress-up, playdough, puppets, scavenger hunts and science experiments. They encourage a child’s language, observation skills and thinking, as well as her social and emotional development.

Young children love to sing, make music, and move to a beat. Learning new songs and dances, beating a drum or shaking a tambourine helps them feel proud and accomplished. Meanwhile, they’re also developing math, reading, language and social skills. Rhymes, for example, help children match the sounds of language, which is a pre-reading skill. Songs expand their vocabulary by exposing them to new words. Playing music and dancing – two steps forward, twirl, one step back – teaches them to recognize and repeat patterns, which develops math skills.

Human beings never lose the need or capacity for play. As adults, our play takes different forms – board games, organized sports, theatre and hobbies – but the moments of lightness and freedom it offers is essential to navigating our rushed, stressful lives optimally.

Despite the myriad benefits of play for both children and parents, the time that children have for free, unstructured play has become vastly reduced. The increasing emphasis on academics and structured ‘enrichment activities’ leaves many children with little time for a simple joy that is a cherished part of childhood. As parents and educators, it’s incumbent upon us to advocate for play to be integrated consistently into our children’s learning.


A Photo Essay

Psychologists find early childhood friendships contribute to children’s quality of life and ability to adjust to changes within their environments. Kids not only develop strong relationships with peers but also with caregivers.

Serve and Return is the cornerstone of any relationship which is built on observation, turn-taking and responsiveness. Through constant repetition, it actually creates the neural pathways in a child’s brain which lead to all future learning and development.

Children often take behavioural cues from adults. It is crucial for the caregivers to be good role models. Parents should encourage the friendships that are important to their child and respect the child’s personality.

Children do not always use words to communicate, they create their own language using actions or through play. Inclusion in schools builds empathy and eliminates fear or stigma among children.

Play can be instrumental in building strong friendships. It helps children to understand each other and also deal with conflicts. And what better way to have fun together?

Friendships go a long way. Social groups among disabled adults are good for building their communication and social skills. Such groups, create a space for them to express and enjoy with each other. It becomes a safe space for them.

Celebrations are again a great way to encourage friendships among children. It shows the love and care they have for each other and it creates a community around them.

Parents often are the biggest cheerleaders for their kids and that makes the child believe sky is the limit and it gives them an overall development – physically, socially and cognitively.

Strong relations with other carers in their lives is also great for the child. They begin to have more positive friendships and it develops their trust and capacity to face adversities in life.

Its often-said friends are families that we choose and why not? This is one of the relationships that make our lives better.