Inclusive Play Resource

father and son playing sml

Inclusive Play Resource

The topic of inclusive play provision is a huge wonderland of theories, structures and methodologies broad enough to fill a life time’s enquiry. Below are a few thoughts and ideas around the structures and principles that we use at Different Planet Arts to provide inclusive and creative play engagement.

We believe that good play provision is inherently beneficial in fostering emotional, cognitive, social and physical development without necessarily being agenda or goal driven as it often is. Play provides a space for children to be creative, take risks and make discoveries while developing their understanding of the world around them.

The official definition of play is often defined as: ‘to engage in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose.’ We prefer Dr Stuart Browns (National Institute for Play, USA) belief that play and its benefits are vital and accessible to all ‘allowing the exploration of the possible,’ and that the basic aspects of play are the nurture of creativity, the imagination and problem solving or a heightened understanding of the world around us. Play can through attunement to the individual child needs, a creative resourcefulness, an enquiring mind, improvisation and adaption and a child led approach be made accessible to all. We may design play with a neurodiverse focus from the onset or adapt existing structures to facilitate access to a wide variety of needs that is not reductive nor detracts from the quality of the play.

As well as being enjoyable and stimulating, play and creative engagement can be of benefit by:

• Building trusting relationships and friendships

• Developing communications skills, verbal and non-verbal

• Enabling us to express and exploring feelings

• Developing social interaction skills, such as turn-taking, leading and sharing

• Developing listening and observing skills

• Developing artistic and creative skills

• Improving self-image and confidence

• Working with our imagination

• Creating opportunities and skills for self-advocacy

• Working safely, with clear boundaries and aiding in daily tasks and transitions

• Providing the opportunity to having fun!

A Little Bit about Theory

2 kids playing

Two Approaches to Play

The Different Ways in Which Children Play – Mildred Parten

When approaching an inclusive play opportunity with an individual in the work that we do we often think about Mildred Partons system describing the different ways we play. Each play type is valued, and while Mildred Partens system may at first seem linear with a progression to group/ cooperative play which many children find difficult it also illustrates that although children often inhabit one or two types of play they may visit or explore a different form of playing while practising or gaining skills or confidence and it is by far linear. It also defines and values onlooker play, solitary play and unoccupied play which is often negated and views them as vital in development.

In 1932 Mildred B. Parten developed a system for classifying participation in play. This organization is still considered one of the best descriptions of how play develops in children (Gander, Mary and Harry W. Gardiner, 1981).

Unoccupied Play

Unoccupied play refers to activity when a child actually isn't playing at all. He may be engaged in seemingly random movements, with no objective. Despite appearances, this definitely is play and sets the stage for future play exploration.

Solitary (Independent) Play

Solitary play is just what it sounds like—when your child plays alone. This type of play is important because it teaches a child how to keep himself entertained, eventually setting the path to being self-sufficient. Any child can play independently, but this type of play is the most common in younger children around ages 2 or 3. At that age, they are still pretty self-centred and lack good communication skills. If a child is on the shy side and doesn't know his playmates well, he may prefer this type of play.

Onlooker Play

Onlooker play is when a child simply observes other children playing and doesn't partake in the action. It's common for younger children who are working on their developing vocabulary. Don't worry if your little one is behaving this way. It could be that the child feels shy, needs to learn the rules, or maybe is the youngest and wants just to take a step

Parallel Play

Put two 3-year-olds in a room together and this is what you are likely to see: the two children having fun, playing side by side in their own little world. It doesn't mean that they don't like one another, they are just engaging in parallel play. Despite having little social contact between playmates, children who parallel play actually learn quite a bit from one another like taking turns and other social niceties. Even though it appears they aren't paying attention to each other, they truly are and often mimic the other one's behaviour. As such, this type of play is viewed as an important bridge to the later stages of play.

Associative Play

Slightly different from parallel play, associative play also features children playing separately from one another. But in this mode of play, they are involved with what the others are doing—think children building a city with blocks. As they build their individual buildings, they are talking to one another and engaging each other. This is an important stage of play because it helps little ones develop a whole host of skills—socialization (what should we build now?) and problem solving (how can we make this city bigger?), cooperation (if we work together we can make our city even better) and language development (learning what to say to get their messages across to one another). Through associative play is how children begin to make real friendships.

Cooperative Play

Cooperative play is where all the stages come together and children truly start playing together. It is common in older pre-schoolers or in younger pre-schoolers who have older siblings or have been around a lot of children). Cooperative play uses all of the social skills your child has been working on and puts them into action. Whether they are building a puzzle together, playing a board game, or enjoying an outdoor group game, cooperative play sets the stage for future interactions as your child matures into an adult.


We think about where the child might be most comfortable, and what they’re ‘anchor’ or familiar play type is and also think about providing opportunities and support for movement no matter how small between the play styles. For example, for an autistic child who likes to take part from a distance or periphery we would provide structures and verbal ques to incorporate them into any group play by:

• Providing a smaller version of a larger object or game to be participated from a distance,

• Providing visual que - a long piece of material connecting them from their position to the group

• Verbally acknowledging and including them in the play scenario in a way that incorporates their needs and behaviour into the play story or scenario.

We might also recognise that it may only be possible for the same child to inhabit the group space for a short time before leaving but that this might be a valuable move towards group or cooperative play.

This system helps us understand and value the ways our children play while providing a map of possibilities.

The Seven Different Types of Play - Dr Stuart Brown

We may use Dr Browns seven types of play to inform us which areas of play a child or young person inhabits comfortably, where play may be developing and to guide us to where the easiest entry points to play may be in relation to the individuals strengths. It is linear but in reality children and young people experiment and explore several different types of play moving from one to the other while having strengths in one or two areas at any one time. We revisit each area through our lives honing and developing skills according to our nature and circumstances.

Dr Browns seven different types of play are interesting in that the focus is around creative play and exploration and illustrates directly how creativity is vital in human development.

(National Institute for Play

Dr Stuart Brown, the founder of the National Institute for Play, has classified several different types of play and determined that each type of play accomplishes different benefits.

Attunement Play

Attunement play is the early building block for all forms of play. Through activities like peek-a-boo and baby talk, parents begin to establish an emotional connection with their infant. It not only helps develop object permanence, it helps build awareness and fosters happiness. When you smile and coo happily at your baby, he or she learns to mimic your expressions and eventually smiles back and begins to vocalize as well.

Body Play & Movement

Body play and movement is largely a way for children to develop a spatial understanding of themselves and world around them. Leaping in the air teaches us the effects of gravity. Dance teaches us the various ways that our bodies can move.

Object Play

Playing with toys and objects develops problem-solving skills. Animal researchers developed a test to determine intelligence among ravens. They put food on a string and suspended it from a branch. The ravens began to gather the string using their claws and beaks until the food was in their grasps. Object play is similar in that it allows children to explore the functions of objects and develop tools.

Social Play

One of the most complex forms of play, social play helps children establish social norms. As our children engage in group play, they develop the interpersonal skills that will help them have successful friendships and relationships as adults.

Imaginative & Pretend Play

Whether it’s done in a group or on one’s own, imaginative and pretend play is the birthplace of creativity. Whether a child is playing house or hosting a tea party, he or she is developing their own inner story and an understanding of his or her place in the world.

Storytelling & Narrative Play

Children love it when you read them a story, in the same way that adults enjoy binge watching on Netflix. And while both of these activities have an element of fantasy, it also helps both children and adults gain an understanding of both ourselves and of others.

Creative Play

Creating music, brainstorming…these playful situations tap into our creative juices that are developed during pretend play and extract finished ideas that add function and progress to our lives.

Inclusive Play Checklist When Approaching play:

Play Kit sml

Tuning In and Following the Childs Lead

While you might have an idea of how you would like to play with your child or what they might like, take time to tune into their mood and energy levels and the play or activity they might be undertaking at the time. Tuning into your child or young person with breath and mirroring actions, encouragement and commenting rather than asking questions about what is happening is often great starting point and an anchor too come back to throughout the play experience. Flexibility in approach to play is key, letting go of fixed agendas and following your child’s lead, encourage your child to explore, discover and take safe risks in the play journey that you are undertaking together. Encouraging the child to lead play activities and starting from where they are will provide opportunities for the child or young person to develop, deepen and extend their learning and develop confidence in their play and exploration.

Improvisation and flexibility are key even around already established play structures and ideas. While staying present to the child’s needs we will need to let go, play and take creative risks too.

We can use the tools in our inclusive play skills tool kit to provide structures and play frameworks but always following the child or young person’s lead. If an invitation falls flat on its face or is rejected don’t worry it will tell you something about what is possible, what is needed and where you might both journey with the play. If an initial approach doesn’t work try something different following their lead, pauses are part of play too and provide moments from which engagement can emerge. If your play buddy doesn’t want to play try again another time.

Attunement and Improvisation

Sensory Play

Our senses - taste, smell, touch, vision, and hearing are key to learning about the world and providing opportunities for the engagement with and broadening our opportunities for play. Please see our multisensory play environment s resource.

When playing or creating a play experience such as a sensory story for example consider what senses can be used to deepen the play and exploration? What are the sensory access points? What does your child/ young person enjoy? How does your child like to use their senses and how might this be used to help facilitate exploration and a deepening of the play experience either through engagement or understanding? Let them explore and avoid instructing them in how to experience the sensory adventure.

Laddering Play

Most improvisation and free play is made possible through a supporting structure that ‘holds’ the play or improvisation something that is often utilised in comedy for example. Laddering of the play experience with a minimal spacious structure that facilitates a child’s entry and exit to the play and their engagement with the play can be very useful.  This principle can be used within with in free and structured play. When considering a play structure, opportunity or game take a moment to think about what your child/ young person will find challenging and what they will find easy or accessible. If the play is new, unfamiliar or challenging it may be necessary to introduce the child to the play structure/ event-  a story, game, music or sensory moment several times allowing the child to inhabit the structure more each time while familiarising themselves with the experience and experimenting and exploring.

The child can be supported in accessing the activity bit by bit and gradually starting from their strengths and building on their experience starting with low demand activities or engagement and building on the ask as the play experience progresses or over multiple play experiences. Revisiting play structures such as a story or treasurer hunt adapted to your child’s needs where there are repeated opportunities for practise, exploration and engagement are great and will allow the child to inhabit the play more deeply.

It is often useful to work with a definite beginning and ending which can be signalled with a communication aid such as pecs, a song or sound (please see our music and sound resource), moving over a play threshold such as a doorway or a piece of cloth on the floor, in a special way. For example, all the children of the household can be asked to leave the sitting room (play area) in a special way by jumping over the door threshold, taking a giant step, rolling their wheelchair in a special celebratory way such as zigzagging while affirming that the play is over with Makaton. Beginning and ending structures like these regularly repeated can become part of a child’s play vocabulary and aid in transitions.

Providing visual ques for the beginning and end of participation in a game with green and red pieces of cloth or pecs signs can support a child in play. Providing visual ques as to where to position themselves in order to be able to take part. Placing floor dots/ mats on the ground for circle time activities can help. In the same way marking out a space for a specific game/ or area such as storytelling can help anchor a child in play prolonging their engagement with the activity.

Inclusive Play Kit

As well as using specially adapted play resources which can often be vital in inclusive play it is often possible to use what we have at hand. Look at the qualities of what is needed for a play experience or piece of specially made/ bought kit and see if there is something at home that can be used instead. For example, medium to large pieces of wide lycra can be used for many of the parachute games possible with shop bought parachutes. Puppets can be improvised from simple materials such as a wooden cooking spoon and a piece or a drum stick for a homemade drum created from a wooden spoon with a couple of socks wrapped around the end and fasted with a large rubber band. Please take a moment to ensure that homemade kit is safe and secure in relation to your child’s behaviours and needs.

What play resources do you already have and what might be adapted or used in any intended play. Try looking at different things that you have around the house, toys or objects and exploring the different ways that they may be used for example:

Pieces of cloth, coloured sheets and throws etc. Blue material can be used to make symbolise and make the sea or a lake or water. With added movement they can become the waves in a story or the sky. You could hide objects in the ‘sea’ or use the cloth to fancy dress moment for a character in a story. Lycra can as mentioned be used as a substitute for many of the games played with a parachute. A piece of lycra can also be stretched over an individual to provide a pleasant resistant surface under which to move or to provide containing space. We can build dens and sensory spaces with cloth and throws please see our sensory storytelling space and outer space sensory environment photo montages. Small pieces of cloth can be wrapped around and object or folded around a hand and turned into a puppet.

Objects with different textures and surfaces. How might they be explored through touch and what sound properties do they have. What surfaces and textiles do you have with differing or contrasting textures?  For example, a shower loafer or piece of fur on a garment to represent an animal? Or, when thinking about homemade instruments a large flat baking trays inverted to make a drum, a long cardboard tube and a flip fop used to hit the end and create a boom whacker.

A collection of different sized and balls and objects can become kit for participatory games, become ‘treasure’ within a treasure hunt or used to symbolize a characters or animate objects within relational play when turned into a dragon egg or a little bird etc. Following the initial response of a child balls can also be used in a myriad of different ways to initiate play when rolled towards or presented to a child.

Figurative toys and objects that can be used in symbolic and relational play as character in story or objects within a tray filled with a layer of sand.

The above are intended as a few examples of how we can use what we have and through time develop our senses as a play detective creating ‘something out of nothing’ and play opportunities from the things around us that can be utilised in either relational, physical, pretend or exploratory play.

Please see our useful resources tab for links to suppliers of materials and inclusive play resources.

What are the Opportunities for Relational Play?

Unless your child would like to have some alone time take a moment to consider what opportunities for relational play there are in the play. What are the possibilities for connecting the child’s inner world with their outer world and the people who inhabit it? What are the possibilities for practising, exploring within the play that might develop communication, social skills and relationships and enable the child to continue to develop their understanding of themselves and their world. This is particularly important for children who tend to spend a lot of time in their inner world. Making engagement fun and low demand and laddering can be useful as can many of the structures used in attunement and intensive interaction. Please see for the incredibly useful approach that this method of play, communication and engagement provides.

Will supporting communication during play produce better play possibilities?

Aid play with supported communication if needed, pec cards, Makaton, sign language. Be sure to allow for plenty of processing time, pauses and silences are good.

Do you believe in the play proposed? How comfortable are you as a play partner?

Be committed, believe in what your offering within the structured play, the play scenario or free play.

The types of play that you enjoyed / enjoy are probably the areas where you can most easily engage others in play regardless of any adaptions that may be necessary to make them accessible to our children. Only play with your child, children and or family for as long as you enjoy it as they will sense when we become bored or distracted.

Play Video

With the above in mind here are 3 play materials and how they can be used in different ways:
(All these games are intended to be facilitated)

Multi-Coloured Parachute - Laddering play

Basic Kit / Resources

Multi-Coloured Parachute large or small, some balls these can be sensory balls or variety medium balls and one big one. Spots to demarcate the circle are also great

Kit Adaption

You can use a large piece of stretchy lycra as a substitute for many of the cooperative games

Laddering the Play

Start by placing the floor spots on the ground to demarcate the circle space and where people are to stand while playing the parachute games and invite them to  or take them to a spot . Let them know that this is their spot and this is where they are to stand and return to. Unravel the parachute from the centre of the circle to the edge of the circle and spots. Partnering people in twos is a good way of supporting people in parachute games if their movement is limited. The sensory nature of parachutes - the feel of the material, movement of the air while the parachute is moved, the sound that it makes and the bright colours can make for a pleasurable sensory experience for participants. Then depending on whose playing introduce them to the parachute in different ways.

You may:

Place it on the ground and explore the upper surface together choosing a colour and lying sitting or wheeling onto it and connecting physically round the circle with outstretched arms and legs reflecting on your colour.

Or if people are needing to move around a lot or are very sensory you may wish to explore the underside immediately by beginning to waft the parachute material up and down inviting those who can or want to, to lift it up and down until the parachute is ‘breathing’. All may take part in this from the beginning holding the edge and moving the parachute or some may need to move underneath the parachute or satellite in and out – all can experience the sensory delight of the parachute together. Try and develop a relaxed lifting and lowering of the parachute initially that is like breath and after a while enjoying the sensation explore other ways of moving the parachute. Have the basic movements of the parachute up and down creating the parachute ‘breath’ as the anchoring movement and transitional movement of the parachute when changing games or tempo etc.

opening parachute
open parachute 2
open parachute 3
open parachute 4

Next participants can be invited to lie under the parachute while it is moved over them in a regular rhythm and them with different tempos and speeds or rippled over them. After everyone has had a turn and returned to the edge of the circle or satalighting the next games can be developed such as ball games or bellowing the parachute above a sitting participant group and then bringing the sides in and under peoples bottoms to create a covered and containing story space.

There are so many things that you can do with a parachute experiment and explore! When it is time to end come back to the basic bellowing up and down ‘breath movement’ and together if possible bring the parachute to the centre and pop it back in the bag.

Possibilities for relational / interactive play

As seen above parachutes are great for connecting people and providing a sense of togetherness. Play can be easily adapted to support those in wheelchairs or with limited movement. The parachute may provide a great circular ‘anchor’ from which to play group games such as ball games either keeping them on the parachute or trying to knock them off. Or it may be whooshed in the air by some of the group over peoples’ heads in a game of ‘Everybody who….’ Where a common activity is stated by a caller ( take it in turns) …’everybody likes chocolate’ and all those that do make their way either on their own or aided to the other side of the balloon without the parachute  falling on the ground. Chaos and hilarity ensues, the parachute falls on the group and we all find out things about each other. Participants can be supported and partnered up for this games and plenty of time given for eliciting questions from everyone and supporting each to cross under the parachute. If someone decides to stay underneath another game or play opportunity can be created out of this.

In the larger parachutes there are often central placed cut out holes. These are great for balls games but also for creating activities where there is a focus on one person by the group which can be developed into a sensory activity. Here someone sits or stand in the middle of the circle with their head and part of their body poking through the parachute while the rest of the group hold the sides and a rainbow dress or cloak is created , the other participants can move around the circle while holding the fabric creating a swirling rainbow effector raffle the fabric up and down creating waves or move the fabric in and out creating colourful sensory experiences with the parachute for the person in the middle as they are celebrated.

Swirling parachute dress

Parachutes can be rolled up and used as colourful cradles to rock smaller children. Make sure not to use the section with the velcoed hole!

Parachute craddle 1
Parachute cradle 3
parachute cradle 2

Giant Blue Lycra Co-Operband

Finding different play opportunities in one piece of play kit

Basic Kit / Resources

At least 5 metres of strong and extra wide lycra double stitched with a sewing machine into a large material hoop or co-operband.

Possibilities for different Relational / Interactive Play

Unless taking the material over your heads be sure to tuck the upper part under your arms and if standing roll the bottom part up keeping ankles and feet clear. Always lower the lycra co-operband to the floor to gain entry or exit.

This is a great structure for introducing and supporting relational and interactive play. Whether using the elasticated quality of the fabric in one to one exercises and playing with movement and tension such as rocking or leaning out or different rhythms- moving quietly and slowly or exploding out of the structure.

blue tube 1
blue tube 2
blue tube 3
blue tube 4
pblue tube 5

Or within a group activity where it can ‘hold’ the space for the group and provide a containing area in which play and interaction can happen. This may be an improvised party and celebration with music, chat/ communication and play or a structured facilitated offering such as the group being invited to explore the qualities of the materials leaning in and out, rotating around the inside of the circle of fabric. While participants are at ground level it can be stretched and pulled up over their heads providing a ‘cave’ or contained space in which to be still, tell stories, become a creature in a story – bugs on a leaf (if the material is green), pips exploding out of a fruit, or can be turned into imaginary vehicles such as space ships, boats and cars. They are great for turning into material sledges and pulling children around on this can be turned for example into a game about anticipation – ‘when will I be pulled?’ and animated with verbal sounds introducing your own for the movements and also incorporating the child’s sounds.

Inside the big blue jelly
In the Blue Whizz at Otherworld 2013
Many headed sea creature
Lycra boat

Creating a Bubble Sensory Experience

developing a simple play activity into a sensory activity which can be enjoyed by all the family

Please see our sensory storytelling music and sound and sensory play environment resources for more ideas, enjoy! Inclusive play and creative engagement reading list.