There are lots of important fantastic reasons to prioritise play for disabled and/or neurodivergent children and young people. I’m sure you can list off a bunch of them without having to think too much; there’s developmental reasons, physical wellbeing, opportunities to develop peer relationships, therapeutic benefits, sensory regulation and educational reasons…

Own Way Own Reasons- photo shows a yellow rubber chicken sellotaped to an office swivel chair. The chicken looks like it’s screaming, but it always looks like its screaming.

But there is one reason that I don’t see come up that often, and I think its perhaps one of the most important. I’m going to use a definition from the Playwork Principles to help explain;

The Playwork principles say when a person is playing, they are

“following their own instincts, ideas and interests in their own way for their own reasons.”

What I take from this is that in play every person is exactly who they need to be. It is the space for all the potential of who a person is; those “instincts, ideas and interests”, with no judgement or pressure or possibility of failure; “in their own way for their own reasons.”

Own Way Own Reasons- photo shows a curb overgrown with weeds, a line of discarded rubbish has been arranged leaning against the curb.

As adults, when we make space, time and create opportunities for children and young people to play we are saying to those children and young people; We value your instincts interests and ideas. We value you.

In fact, we are not just saying; we value you. We are putting it into action.

The thing is, for disabled and/or non-neurotypical children and young people a lot of the world doesn’t do that. A lot of the world can actively oppose that because often those children and young people’s instincts, interests and ideas aren’t even seen let alone valued.

So many disabled and/or neurodivergent children and young people are not seen for who they are. We don’t take the time; we see something else instead or we just don’t know how to look.

Creating space, time and opportunities for these children and young people to play is something we can do to help counteract that experience of not being seen or valued. It can’t erase it, but it can create new, different and better experiences.

Own Way Own Reasons- photo taken inside a darkened room. There is a leaning tent type shelter made off bamboo canes and covered with silver foil blankets. Metallic covered balloons spill out of the shelter. Pool noodles can be seen poking out from the debris.

Putting resources into making all play spaces more inclusive for those children and young people the ones who sit outside of the ‘mainstream’ is therefore incredibly valuable.

Those play spaces can be somewhere where those children and young people are seen, heard and celebrated. Here are just a few of the ways that spaces designed purely for play have so much potential for this;

  • Play spaces can exist outside of the social norms or expectations that can be disabling.
  • They can allow for children and young people to find meaningful activity and meaningful ways of interacting with other people and the world around them.
  • They can be physically accessible in creative and meaningful ways.
  • Children can play alone, play alongside each other and play with others. There doesn’t have to be a hierarchy of social needs.
  • They can feel safe and provide a refuge from an overwhelming confusing world
  • There’s no a correct or more proper way of communicating, moving, feeling… a right way of doing anything.
  • They are places of endless possibility, that means any child should be able to follow “their own instincts, ideas and interests in their own way for their own reasons.
Own way Own Reasons- a bamboo cane sticks out of a grassy space with an inside out crisp packet hanging on top. There are benches and a building in the background.

Every time we take a step to create the space an individual child needs to play, we show them their value and on some level in some way they internalise that, it becomes part of who they are, part of the way they exist and move through the world.

Perhaps a little to wordy to fit on a top ten ‘reasons for play’ list, but I think it’s the only one we should really need.