What is inclusive play and why is it important?

Sarah Wall looks at the use of inclusive play and the benefits it can have for both mainstream and SEN children.


Children with special needs can often feel excluded from mainstream society. Consequently they can feel that they do not fit in and are inferior.

Inclusive play is a way of bridging the divide between mainstream and special needs children. Both groups can benefit from these play methods and learn a lot from mixing with those different to themselves. Children at all ages learn in all aspects of development through play: emotional, social, physical and mental.

Mid-day supervisory assistant, Paula Wall, works at Hillside Special Needs School. It encourages inclusive play through after-school clubs and play schemes. “It is good to give able children the experience of spending time with special needs children. Particularly with those who are physically disabled, as they can come to realise how blessed they are in being able to walk and talk.”

Paula points out the importance of ensuring that mainstream children understand, and are able to relate to, special needs children. “If they do not fully understand they might make fun of those with special needs, or leave them out in play because of a lack of understanding.”

By introducing children to others in their community it helps open their eyes to the world around them. They can learn the skills and attitudes that are needed to live in the diverse society that they are a part of. By teaching them about the differences that exist between individuals they are much more likely to be accepting of those with disabilities, and by understanding will not be afraid of making friends with them.

Social integration and inclusion are issues often overlooked by our society. Learning about each other’s differences at a young age can help individuals feel comfortable around others who may not look or act as they do.

Child psychologist, Dr Helena Hoyos, works with special needs children and their families. She explains the usefulness of play in order to integrate and help special needs children develop mentally and socially. “Special needs children often have different ways of communicating to mainstream children,” she explains. “Some may not have the ability to speak, and therefore must communicate in other ways. Play can be an extremely useful tool for communication, for example through role play.

“When mixing with mainstream children, disabilities can disappear when it comes to play. Many children will happily play together without noticing any differences. By encouraging children to play together no matter what their ability, children learn to treat each other the same, regardless of any differences.”

Inclusive play simply involves offering childcare and play-scheme facilities which welcome children of all ages and at all stages of development, whether they be from a mainstream or special needs school background. Currently these settings are something of a rarity, and those that do exist tend to be outside of school hours, either before of after-school or during school holidays.

Becky Jenner is the co-founder of Extratime, a registered charity that runs after school clubs and play schemes. They cater for individuals from 5 – 19 years, from both mainstream and special needs schools. It fills a gap in the after-school care on offer for children and young people with special needs.

“The decision to make Extratime inclusive was based on providing opportunities for disabled and non-disabled children to mix on a level playing field.” Becky explains, “Too often a setting would take one disabled child and then say they were being inclusive, but the reality is that the disabled child becomes more isolated as they have a play worker allocated to them and generally don’t get to join in with the rest of the group.”

Extratime and similar inclusive play schemes aim to reduce this feeling of isolation and make every child feel included. It also aims to educate the children and young people from mainstream schools who may not have come across children with disabilities and therefore may have preconceived ideas and misconceptions about them.

“By including children from mainstream schools it provides those children with an opportunity to learn about living in an inclusive society where everyone is valued and treated with respect,” Becky says.

Children from mainstream schools may never come into contact with those who have special needs without play schemes such as Extratime, and may consequently grow up unaware of how to treat such individuals. This can cause misconceptions and mean that children do not understand that those with special needs have feelings too, they are just a bit different.

Becky has found through her work with Extratime that, “Inclusive play can help mainstream children put their own difficulties or problems in perspective, in order to see children far less able than themselves. It often brings out the best in other children.”

“Preconceived ideas of disability and prejudice, especially from parents of non-disabled children if they have no experience of disability, can be a huge downfall.” Becky explains, she argues that this is one of the main reasons why inclusion at a young age is so important, to avoid such misconceptions.

“The disabled children get a chance to make friends with mainstream children, they often get more from being around children who are often more able and talkative than they are. It’s something to motivate and stimulate them,” Becky explains. Those in particular who are mentally able but physically disabled will often feel excluded, especially if they are not given the opportunity to mix with mainstream students.

Finding childcare for special needs children can be a strain for many parents. Trying to find care where the child will be treated as any other human being and allowed to integrate into society is a rarity. Becky explains how such a scheme also makes things easier for the families, parents and carers of special needs children. Having a daughter with a disability, it was particularly important to Becky to ensure parents needing care had somewhere to go. “Extratime enables siblings to attend too so that, as in my case, all three children could be dropped off at one setting, making it much easier for parents.”

Introducing mainstream individuals to those who have disabilities helps remove the stereotypes that suggest children with special needs cannot be a part of normal society. Becky aims to show this through her company: “Extratime should be a reflection of what society is like; lots of differences but with some adaptations to the physical environment everyone should get the same opportunities.”

Play England are working in collaboration with the disabled children’s charity, KIDS, to help ensure that play spaces meet requirements for inclusive play. Through this organisation, the Playwork Inclusion Project (PIP) has been put into place. The project stresses the importance of effective communication when relating to special needs individuals. Through inclusive play communication barriers can be reduced. For many children that do not have speech with which to communicate with, play can be of their main forms of communication.

KIDS point out that treating special needs children differently can have a negative effect on their development, and cause them to feel isolated. Anna Route, NDD Programme and policy officer for KIDS states that, “Segregating disabled children from an early age can leave them feeling isolated and unwelcome in mainstream settings and services. This perception can last into adolescence and adulthood and will make inclusion into society that much harder. If disabled children and their families are seen as ordinary, active participants in their communities, then the likelihood of them experiencing hostility is reduced.”

Portage home visitor for special needs children, *Lucy, explains how useful inclusive play can be as an instrument for children’s development. She explains how special needs children in particular can gain a lot from the programme. “They can learn much from the children around them, particularly at a young age through symbolic play, social interaction and expressive language.”

She also notes how important it is for such play methods to be well structured and organised. “Children can get lost in this environment if the correct support structures aren’t put in place to ensure their needs are met.”
With the correct planning and structure to inclusive play, it can be a highly beneficial and rewarding method of interaction and development for all involved. Allowing mainstream and special needs children to communicate through play allows a unique communication to take place, which may not be achieved any other way. Inclusive play can help break down some of the barriers that often exist, and can pave the way towards a more understanding community.


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