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The Principles of a Play-Rich Approach

"According to Eberle (2014), trying to functionally define play can result in us creating patrols and borders around play which can be limiting. He suggests that we should find comfort in accepting that play opens a vast open space of potential and can transcend in many ways. This idea of expanding our play borders could potentially allow us to think more broadly about the types and features of play and this could lead to more inclusive approaches for SEND"

 Taken from A Guide to SEND in the Early Years


Play cannot and should not be defined.

Alistair Bryce Clegg points out that play provides infinite variety, and all forms of play are equally as valuable as each other. If we adopt this belief in our practice, the possibilities of play and SEND are also endless. Often children with SEND are taken away from play for intervention, but this is counterproductive given the benefits of play.

Top tip: Be open-minded during play and challenge your conventional perceptions of what play “looks” like.

Embrace strengths, interests, differences, and needs

Children make progress when their experiences are interconnected and meaningful. View children's strengths and interests as the hooks for learning. When it comes to SEND, we sometimes need to be more curious about the unknown of children's play. Just because it doesn't yet make sense to us, it doesn't mean it doesn't make sense to the child.

Top tip: Don’t shut play down too early just because you don’t immediately understand where it’s going.

Play belongs to the child and is informed by the child. This includes the early years' environment, which is owned by the child, but shared with the play protagonists (adults)

It’s still so common to see play being treated as a luxury, privilege or reward - as though it is something children should have to earn. But if we accept that it belongs to the child, we will prioritise it as a ‘must’ rather than a ‘should’. Assumptions can often be made that play is absent in children with SEND, but I would counter this view and encourage practitioners to develop their interpretation skills and to deconstruct their existing ideas of what play should "look" like. 

Top tip: Allow children control and ownership of their play.

Play promotes security, safe-risk, self-advocacy, scaffolding up and self-direction

As part of play ownership, children must feel safe and secure where they play, as this "safe haven" lets them explore without fear. Play protagonists introduce the world of learning in "small doses" so that children can build their confidence and expand their play. This cultivates independence, and when it comes to SEND, independence can only be achieved if we have a flexible approach that adjusts, adapts and accommodates learning differences. 

Top tip: Use a “small dose” approach to learning, and don’t be afraid to break tasks down further to support development.

Play isn't used to "fix" or cure children

A deeply embedded issue in intervention programmes is that they are developed with a neurotypical worldview. Our aims become about ‘training’ children to behave more ‘normally’ in their play and learning.

For neurodivergent children, we must ensure our approach is personalised to their individual needs and personal identity. If you have a child who actively avoids eye contact during social interaction, our aim shouldn’t be to train them to maintain eye contact but to support them to feel confident in social interaction using their preferred forms of interactive engagement.     

Top tip: Focus on the unique child, what they need and assess how best to support them. Help them find out who they are and flourish in what they find, instead of ‘fixing’ them and looking at their behaviour through a neurotypical lens.

Play embraces how children learn, not just what they learn

Learning is not measurable through one method because learning is so varied. Our priority in the early years should be on cultivating lifelong skills that span across different learning subjects. For children with SEND, we need to be highlighting the Characteristics of Effective Learning more than we do now because they offer a way for us to describe the child as a person, not just an outcome. ‍

Top tip: Always start with the characteristics of effective learning for an insight into who the child is as a learner.

Play makes intervention pleasurable and joyful

Think of the number of times we hear the word 'outcomes' when discussing children with SEND or how often we need to provide measurable evidence of progress through SMART targets. A lot of early interventions can lead to specific tasks being planned for children, steering them away from their self-chosen play. Even play-based intervention programmes can become hijacked by a structured, adult-led dynamic.

Top tip: Don’t separate the child from the process of play for the purpose of intervention.

Play involves feedback and consent

When engaging in early intervention strategies, we must prioritise consent and read the signs of non-consent. Unfortunately, some intervention programmes promote children remaining engaged until a task is complete, such as sitting them on your lap. This is not okay and could cause unnecessary distress. Settings should develop ways for children to provide feedback through, like visual charts and self-reporting, as forced engagement has little intrinsic value for the child. 

Top tip: Make sure to read signs of the signs of engagement, involvement and non-consent when interacting with a child.


A useful way to figure out diverse types of play


Common symbols in black & white


A quick guide to help you to decide if your intervention is neurodiversity affirming


Common symbols in colour


A guide to supporting children's special & intense interests


A sneak peak of Little Minds Matters strategies

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