How To Encourage Pretend Play With A Child With Developmental Disabilities

How To Encourage Pretend Play With A Child With Special Needs

Having a child with developmental disabilities can be challenging.

I do not have children with developmental disabilities or developmental disabilities, however I have 15+ years of work experience in this area.

I have worked with many families whose children have developmental disabilities and I know that each child is an individual with unique personalities and learning styles, just like all of us.

Pretend play skills are as important for a child with developmental disabilities to learn as they are for typically developing children.

But, many children with developmental disabilities such as autism or Down Syndrome will require more guidance and support in order to learn these skills.

Researchers agree that young children with excellent play skills tend to have better language and academic skills as they get into the higher elementary grades (Grade 3 and up).

This is also true for children with autism and other developmental disabilities.

Why Do Children With Developmental Disabilities Have More Difficulties With Playing?

Many children with developmental disabilities tend to struggle with social skills.  Children with autism are a great example of this.

If your child has developmental disabilities and their social skills are affected, then learning to play will be a challenge as play is a social activity.

Children with autism and many other developmental disabilities tend to prefer solitary play.  They also gravitate to activities that allow for repetitive movements.

This is why you might see a child with developmental disabilities flapping their arms or playing with a toy the same way over and over again.

As a result of preferring solitary play and repetitive movements, learning to play the way typical children play can be difficult.

This is also why you will always see play based therapy sessions if your child is in therapy.

What is the Best toy for language development?

Tips For Facilitating Pretend Play For Children With Developmental Delays

affiliate disclosure

Stages of Play

First you will need to look at what your child is currently doing with regards to play.

As you will notice, I am not making any references to a child’s age within this article.

This is because it does not matter how old your child is.

You will first need to determine what his current level of play is in order to figure out what to work on to advance to the next stage of play.

But before any kind of meaningful play can happen your child needs to demonstrate joint attention!

The 3 main levels of play are:

  • Functional Play
  • Constructive Play
  • Dramatic Play

If you are not familiar with the different stages of play, please read the article Importance of Pretend Play for more detailed information about each level.

Assuming that you have a child with developmental disabilities, you are probably quite aware that it takes them longer to learn new skills than it does a typically developing child.

So be patient when playing with your child.  And don’t give up.

Just because they may not be “getting it” now, doesn’t mean they never will.

Repetition is the key to success for children with developmental disabilities.

In fact, repetition is needed by all young children in order to learn new skills, including words!

Stages of play can also be categorized by who the child plays and interacts with.  Those stages are as follows: solitary, parallel, associative and cooperative.

For more information on speech and language development and play skills for children on the autism spectrum, check out the book “More Than Words” below!

Imitate and Expand

No matter what stage your child is at, using the techniques of imitating and expanding will be beneficial.

Children with developmental disabilities typically engage in solitary play, often below the functional play level.  If your child is using toys as intended, they are at the functional play level (e.g. building a tower with blocks).

However, if they are not using toys as intended they would not yet be at the level of functional play (e.g. banging blocks together or putting them in their mouth).

Let’s say that your child is not using toys as intended.

Your goal will be to help your child learn how to use that toy.

Blocks are a great learning toy no matter the age of your child.

If your child is banging blocks together, you can imitate the action and then follow it up by demonstrating how to stack 2 blocks together.

Make sure that you are narrating what you are doing.

For example, “the blocks are loud -bang, bang, bang”, “look, I can put 2 blocks together, now it’s your turn”.  See if your child will imitate you.  It may take a while, so be patient.  Follow these steps with any toy that your child is interested in.

If your child is already using toys as expected, take it a step further.

Let’s use feeding a doll as an example.

If your child always puts a spoon to the doll’s mouth, imitate your child while saying something like “the baby is hungry, I am giving her something to eat”.  And then add to it and say “I think the baby is thirsty, let’s give her a drink”.

Show your child how to use a cup to give the doll a drink.

child pretending with text overlay

It can help to have your own doll so that your child can see what you are doing and then imitate it with their own doll.

Remember to stay at the level that your child is at and increase the demands only slightly.

If your child is not yet functionally playing with toys, they won’t gain anything by you trying to engage in an elaborate pretend play scenario.

This is another reason why I am not including ages in this article.

If your child has developmental disabilities, you need to help your child based on what they can already do, not on what they should be doing based on their age.National Autism Resources For Information, Advice and Toys for children with Autism

Tips and Tricks To Help Your Child Pretend

♥ Be Patient

It will take a while for your child to start playing differently so be patient.

You will have to play with them and show them how to play many times before they may do it on their own.

♥ Offer Hand Over Hand Guidance

If your child tolerates having you touch their hands, then take their hand with your hand over top and guide them to do the action.

For example, if you are trying to get your child to give a doll a drink, put the cup in your child’s hand and then use your hand to guide their hand with the cup to the doll’s mouth.

Make sure you narrate while doing this “the baby is thirsty, you gave him a drink!”

But, some children with developmental disabilities do not like being touched/guided and will pull back.

If this happens then don’t force it.  Keep modeling the play action for your child instead.

♥ Repeat Often

If your child doesn’t pick up on what you have showed them, show them again.

It may take many instances of seeing the same action before your child will do it themselves.

♥ Show & Tell

Show and tell your child exactly what you would like them to do.

For example “get the cup and give the baby a drink”.  Make sure you are pointing to the cup and the doll.

You can also demonstrate the action to your child first.  Then give them the instruction “get the cup and give the baby a drink”.

Remember, keep the interactions as natural as possible.  If you push to hard, your child will shut down and will no longer want to participate.  If this does happen, move on to something else.

Do you have a child with developmental disabilities?

What are some of your struggles when it come to playtime?

If you have any questions or comments regarding pretend play with children with developmental disabilities please leave a comment below.

child pretending with text overlay


  1. Shreiya Aggarwal

    So many great ideas here. In my work with kids as an early educationist, I find that parents today have very little patience with their children. It’s not correct for parents to “diagnose” children as dyslexic, autistic, or even “slow” — for all you know, they just might be getting a bit angry or stubborn! I have a few ideas on raising happy and successful kids (such as discipline and a growth mindset, regardless of their social skills) — see if it piques your interest:

    1. Tanya (Post author)

      Hi Shreiya,

      Thanks for your comment. I will check out you’re article. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Soni

    My child with autism has that repetitive play..Like he lines everything be it blocks, toy cars, or soft should I develop play skills in him.

    1. Tanya (Post author)

      Hi Soni

      Since I don’t know how old your son is or what his language level is like, I cannot give specific recommendations. Start by trying to follow some of the suggestions in the article. He seems to like cars, so model driving a toy car around. If you have a toy car garage or a car play mat show him how to incorporate the cars with either of these items. He may be resistant at first so just play beside him modelling appropriate play.
      If he is receiving speech or occupational therapy, the therapist should also be able to help you with this.
      All the best!

  3. Sundar

    This post would be really helpful for those parents who have children who need special care and attention. Though I am yet to marry, one of my relative’s children is suffering from a sort of disease and they spend most of their time looking after him. I want them to go through this post. I am sure it will be very helpful to them.

    1. Tanya (Post author)

      Hi Sundar,

      Thanks for taking the time to read this article to help your relative with their child. There are many other articles on this site that they may find helpful. I appreciate you sharing this information with them.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

error: Content is protected !!