Play-based learning is almost universally acknowledged by early years educators as beneficial for children’s cognitive, social, and emotional development.

Educational theorists such as Vygotsky and Montessori note that benefits of play-based learning include:

· Freedom to take risks and explore new environments;

· Trial and error within safe and low-risk environments;

· Extensive language use and expression during group play; and

· Free choice to pursue personal interests.

Play is recognizable as a feature of childhood across national and cultural boundaries. It appears to be a natural way in which all children across the world begin to develop self-expression, social skills, and cognitive capacity.

However, many students display play behaviors that might catch us off guard. Dr. Justine Howard’s extensive research, for example, shows that children with Down syndrome, autism, and ADHD often exhibit atypical play behaviors. 

Even if some students play in different ways to what we expect, educators need to recognize that play should remain a right of all children. Therefore, we need to consider ways to differentiate our play-based learning scenarios to ensure all children have equal access to play opportunities.

Below are examples of play behaviors that research finds are characteristic of students with ADHD, autism, and Down syndrome. With knowledge of these play behaviors, educators can develop strategies for differentiating play situations to ensure our classrooms are inclusive of all children.

Play Behaviors of Children with ADHD

Typical characteristics of ADHD include impulsiveness, inattentiveness, and hyperactivity. Children with ADHD often display play behaviors such as shorter and incomplete play sessions, trouble following play rules, and difficulty playing in groups.

To differentiate play activities to accommodate the needs of students with ADHD, educators can:

· Shorten or mix up play sessions to attend to the hyperactivity of students with ADHD. Teachers can ensure play sessions are at a length that the child can reasonably be expected to sustain focus before changing play environments or moving on to new activities.

· Allow children to play in open spaces. Children with ADHD often crave movement. It is reasonable for educators to keep in mind this requirement when selecting play activities that can take place in an open play location with room to move;

· Avoid overstimulation. Some children with ADHD can be easily overstimulated. To minimize overstimulation, assess which materials will be present in the play environment. Think about which play tools are appropriate for the child and which may cause overstimulation.

Play Behaviors of Children with Autism

Typical characteristics of autism include repetitive and ritualistic behaviors, difficulties in communicating with peers, and difficulties recognizing others’ emotions. Children with autism will often prefer to play alone, regularly repeat one play scenario, and find imaginative play difficult.

Differentiated play activities for children with autism include:

· Start with everyday activities: While it is crucial to help children with autism experience new stimuli, it is often best to gradually introduce anything new. Starting with a familiar play scenario can settle the child into their play session.

· Diversify opportunities for communication: Children with autism often require explicit communication of the rules of social interaction. I have found it very useful to use visual cue cards that children with autism can use as prompts to help them to express themselves.

Play Behaviors of Children with Down Syndrome

Children with Down syndrome characteristically have cognitive, social, and physical developmental delays. There are also increased risks of vision and hearing impairments for children with Down syndrome. In play situations, these characteristics may mean that such children have difficulties with communication and coordination.

Play scenarios for children with Down syndrome may benefit from some of the following teaching strategies:

· Focus on fine and gross motor skills: Provide toys within a play space that support both fine and gross motor skill development. This can help the physical development of children with Down syndrome.

· Encourage exploration: Children with Down syndrome engage in symbolic play at a similar rate to their peers. However, they may have delayed exploratory play behaviors. Teachers should focus on helping children with Down syndrome to explore and be creative in their use of toys and tools during play scenarios.

All children are different.

A student-centered approach should involve being attentive to the unique needs of individuals in the classroom. There are some patterns of behavior characteristic of children with ADHD, autism, and Down syndrome that teachers should be aware of. Awareness of the typical behaviors of students with learning disabilities can help educators know how and when to differentiate play activities.

Importantly, all children, regardless of their cognitive, social, or emotional development, appear to exhibit a desire for and enjoyment of play. By differentiating play experiences, educators can ensure they satisfy the needs of children in their classes to express themselves and learn through play.

Dr. Christopher Drew is a former elementary school teacher. He now educates pre-service teachers as a university lecturer. You can get in touch with him at his personal blog:

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