Tuesday, June 25, 2013

8 ways pretend play can help kids with special needs

One of my favorite games to play with Max is Monster. It's totally basic: He pretends he is a huge scary monster, and I run away in terror. It's actually trickery on my part, because I am trying to get him to raise his hands up high in the air (not something his muscles are prone to doing) and also articulate words like "I'm going to get you!"

Pretend play can help kids with special needs in all sorts of real-life ways. Few people know this better than Elaine Hall, the dynamic former Los Angeles acting coach who started The Miracle Project in 2004, based on experiences with her son, Neal, who has autism.

The highly-acclaimed theater arts programs it runs in California and New York help kids with special needs express themselves through music, dance, acting, story and writing. Elaine was profiled in the documentary Autism: The Musical and has received honors from Autism Speaks and multiple other entities. There are currently 14 programs in New York and California; last year, CVS Caremark partnered with the non-profit to expand the Miracle Project School Inclusion program to public schools in San Diego and San Jose. With 300 more cities and towns requesting programs, Elaine says, The Miracle Project is gladly accepting donations.

"All children learn through play, and make sense of their world through play," says Elaine. "It develops the imagination and takes the big, loud, wild world and makes it accessible and understandable so a child can have mastery over it, in a small way. As Plato once said, 'Play is serious business.'"

Here's Elaine's wisdom on how play can help enable, empower and entertain our kids, plus some of her favorite games.
Pretend play can help kids get past their fears
Miriam, usually happy and enthusiastic, arrived to a Miracle Project class one day all upset—next day, there was a fire drill in her school, and she was terrified. To ease her fear, we took our class time to discuss what a fire drill was, and pretend play all of the scenarios that may occur with a fire drill like leaving the classroom, standing in line and waiting with others to know it was safe to return.

We also gave Miriam opportunities to express her feelings—terror that it might be a real fire, fear of the loud sound of the fire drill, fears she would get lost leaving her classroom. We acted out each scenario then problem solved each one. To close, we pretend played a "real" fire—this time with Miriam as the firefighter putting out the fire. She Loved having the power to put out the fire. The next week when Miriam came to The Miracle Project, she bounced into class and said, beaming, "We had a fire drill last week and I wasn't scared at all!"  

Pretend play can prep kids for new experiences
It's great to pretend-play going on a long trip or airplane. In my book Now I See the Moon, I describe in detail how we once prepared Neal for a flight: First we looked at picture books and videos about airplanes—today you can look online for pictures of the inside of an airplane, the outside, the security area and so on. We play-acted packing our bags, taking off our shoes when we went through security, sitting on an airplane, buckling our seat belts, placing our hands over our ears for the loud takeoff. We would go on imaginary journeys on our pretend airplane flights. When it was time for Neal to take the actual trip, he knew what to expect and he did great! FYI, some airports now have programs to help kids with special needs help kids "practice" going on an airplane.

Pretend play can help soothe anxiety about doctor and dentist visits 
We use our "Rehearse for Life" program to prepare to go to the dentist. We look at books and videos about dentists. Then we pretend-play being in the waiting room, going into the chair, opening our mouths. If your dentist is amenable, you can also do a series of practice sessions in the office. Neal would go for five minutes, say "hi" to the dentist and look around the waiting room. The dentist would say hello and then we'd leave. We'd come back another time, and the dentist would look into Neal's mouth in the waiting room. A third time, Neal sat down in the dental chair and opened his mouth, and the dentist just looked in. These sessions created positive emotional memories for Neal that became larger than his fears. When it was time for the actual dental exam, Neal walked into the room without fear, sat in the chair, opened his mouth and let the dentist do his thing.

Pretend play can help kids practice emotions
Playing out different emotions—show me a happy face, show me a sad face, show me an excited face—allows the child to know that they have choices in how they are feeling and what they want to express.

Pretend play can encourage movement
Pretend play encourages kids to move their body in ways they may not typically move, and expand their movements. Neal loves the story of The Very Hungry Caterpillar. So we'd each take a blanket, wrap ourselves up in it and roll around on the floor, like we were cocoons. Here's another story: One of my students, Danny, is severely challenged and was in a chair at the time he started. But in class we'd pretend to be animals and do movements across the floor, crawling like a dog, hopping like a bunny, galloping like a horse. In the first couple of months, we'd wheelchair him across. Then we started to carry him. One day, he got out of his wheelchair and on his own scooted across the floor, like a dog! When he started using a walker, we gave him a part as a DJ in a performance, dressing his walker up with a turntable. He started using that walker more than ever, so much so that his teachers at school asked if we could make the turntable part of his walker! Imagery can draw a child out in ways that one foot here, one foot there cannot do.

Pretend play can encourage speaking
Sounds can come out in ways words may not. If you're reading a book to a child, act out the words: for the word "big," for example, exaggerate it as "biiiiiiiiig! and encourage the child's arms to go high. Also, don't just read to kids—stop and ask them to fill in words. When Neal was young and we'd play peek-a-boo, I'd say "peeka!" and Neal would add "boo!"  

Pretend play can build relationships with other kids
I used to work privately with a nine-year-old boy who only wanted to act out The Three Little Pigs. He’d explore the emotions of each pig, how he felt when the house burned down and the power of the wolf. Then we started bringing in other kids to play different roles. He became director and would say "You're the wolf, I'm the piggie whose house is made out of sticks." It created interaction. In time that game evolved into other stories and games, to the point where we were doing a whole time-travel thing together. Pretend play expanded his ability to be age-appropriate in story-telling, creative play and in his social life with other kids his age.

Pretend play can enrich parent-child bonds
When Neal was young, I'd put him on my back and we'd play horsie. He’d ride me and I’d stop and ask "Do you want more?" and he’d sign "more" and we’d laugh and connect. When Neal would flap his hands, instead of saying "hands down" I'd flap with him and suddenly we were birds flying around, connecting. And if he wanted to spin, I'd hold hands and turn it into Ring Around The Rosie. By joining his world and turning it into play, it made a connection between him and me. That's what every parent wants.

Photos courtesy of The Miracle Project

This is one of a series of posts sponsored by CVS Caremark All Kids Can, a commitment to helping children of all abilities be the best they can be. Like them on Facebook!


  1. We used pretend play as a way to stretch out the time our daughter would manipulate infant toys. Her fine motor skills are so limiting that the only toys she could operate into her 4-5th year were ones made for infants, but her congitive interest was well beyond that. So we played with her dolls together and she would pretend to "teach" her dolls how to use the infant toys. It worked very nicely for a year or two.

    I love using toys as "rehearsal for life," as you describe. There are so many great Little People playsets, and you can use them to act out a zillion potential scenarios that might happen in a particular setting (I love that Fisher Price has the wheelchair to include in creative play with its Little People!). This is especially good when a child lacks the language to ask questions...they've already had a preview and been able to mentally rehearse the situations before they arise. We did this for months before preschool, playing out school days and bus rides. The only down side was that my little one felt so confident about the school bus that she refused to let me drive her to preschool on the first day--she wanted the BUS!!!

    1. How fabulous, Rose-Marie on using pretend play so beautifully with your daughter! Great how much confidence she felt after 'playing out school days and bus rides!"

  2. I have a vivid imagination, so pretending helped me release the ideas.

    1. Wonderful, Anna! I, too had a vivid imagination - and often spent hours pretend playing on my own. It's great to release ideas and share with others!


Thanks for sharing!

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