Adaptive Play and Assistive Technology

Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.
- Fred Rogers

What is Adaptive Play?

Adaptive play allows a child with limited function in abilities such as movement, speech, vision, hearing, comprehension or communication, to play more fully. It may involve customizing existing toys, using adaptive equipment, accessing assistive technologies, developing new ways to play, or modifying the child’s environment. Play can be adapted for your child at home, in the community, or while in the hospital.

Adaptive Play at Home

Many children with special health care needs find a great comfort at home, and being able to play and be themselves feels great. Some ideas for improving the fun are:
  • Add a Switch: Modifying a favorite interactive toy, such as one that talks or lights up, with a switch is a common way to allow a child with motor skill challenges to activate the toy more easily. Instead of pushing small buttons on the original toy, which requires fine motor skill, the switch is connected with a large, hand-sized button to activate the toy.
  • Add Some Stick: Some children might have the skills to play with a toy, but their gross motor skills make their arms push too hard, which causes the toy to slide away. Buying a roll of no-slip drawer liner and cutting it to fit the bottom of the toy, to make it stick, can sometimes do the trick.
  • Bells and Whistles: Communication devices, such as an iPad or tablet, can be used at home to communicate the child’s needs and wants. If you are teaching your child to use the device and you need a reward system, you can reward them with a special app that they love (a music app, fireworks app, or a stream of their favorite show, etc.).
  • Ask for Help: Many states have assistive technology centers where you can call and ask for help. These centers often have innovative employees who love to create new opportunities for children and adults with disabilities. See Assistive Technology programs by state (RESNA).
  • Buying: There are also websites that sell pre-made adaptive toys of all kinds.

Adaptive Play in the Community

Whether your child is interested in sports, dance, or art, there are many local and state programs for children with special health care needs.
  • Sports: Many states have organizations offering adaptive sports for children and adults with disabilities. Special Olympics, Paralympics, adaptive baseball, basketball, swimming, and soccer are just a few. The best way to find these programs is to do a web search for them in your state.
  • Playgrounds: All over the country, communities are now seeing the need to offer adaptive equipment in playgrounds like wheelchair swings, supportive swings, and wheelchair-friendly splash pads. Check with your community parks and see what they have to offer. If there is nothing available in your community, you can contact your city leaders, let them know this is a need, and discuss what it would take to make your parks accessible.
  • The Arts: Children of all ages and abilities love the arts. Every state has accessible art programs that use adaptations and creative solutions that allow children to experience dance, music, painting, and more. The best way to find programs that let your child be creative, by themselves, is to search online for the activity that you are looking for (dance, mixed media, music, etc.) in the state you live. Also see Fine Arts programs by state.

Adaptive Play in the Hospital

Adaptive Play boy playing
Photo courtesy of Tina Persels

For children who are hospitalized, play can offer a much needed break from medical procedures, pain, and boredom. Children with limited motor function, vision and hearing impairments, and other disabilities can benefit from assistive technology ( i.e., any item, whether acquired commercially, modified, or customized, which is used to maintain or improve the functional capabilities of a child with a disability) and adapted play in the hospital setting.
  • Child Life Teams: Children’s hospitals (and sometimes general hospitals) have Child Life teams that visit with children and their families, assess their interests, and provide activities that involve playing with toys, listening to music, creating art, and playing games. Some hospitals also have a stock of adaptive toys for children who would not otherwise play with regular toys. If your child is inpatient, ask your nurse if the Child Life team has adaptive toys and activities for your child. See page Child Life Services
  • Special Programs: I Can Play: The I Can Play program at Primary Children's Hospital in Salt Lake City, Utah, supplies adaptive toys and assistive technology for inpatient children of various abilities. Aside from creating new possibilities for play, function, and communication, the program teaches families and the Child Life Specialists about further opportunities for adaptive play in the hospital, home, and community. The education continues as the Child Life department and nursing staff connect families with community resources at the time of discharge, and the hospital provides in-service education for staff by these community organizations.
Whatever the setting may be, children are usually ready to play. Some are just waiting for the opportunity to do so. Get out your duct tape, search how to adapt toys, find a website that sells them, call your local assistive technology center . . . whatever it is you need to do will be well worth it when your child lights up because they can play.


Information & Support

For Parents and Patients

Assistive Technology programs by state (RESNA)
RESNA Catalyst Projects listed by state. Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America (RESNA) receives funding to provide technical assistance to Assistive Technology (AT) Act Grantees for consumers with disabilities of all ages.

Fine Arts programs by state
The Kennedy Center's Very Special Arts affiliate states.

National Lekotek Center
An organization promoting play and toys for children with special healthcare needs.

Toys for Differently Abled Kids (Toys R Us)
A yearly catalog of toys for children with special needs sorted by type (gross motor, fine motor, communication, etc.).
A great source for adapted toys, including specials on certain items.

Services in Nevada

Select services for a different state: ID, MT, NM, RI, UT

Rehabilitation / Habilitation Services

We currently have no Rehabilitation / Habilitation Services service providers listed; search our Services database for related services.

For other services related to this condition, browse our Services categories or search our database.

Authors & Reviewers

Initial Publication: August 2016; Last Update: November 2017
Current Authors and Reviewers (click on name for bio):
Author: Tina Persels
Reviewer: Shena McAuliffe, MFA