5 Moms Share Tips on Designing Playrooms for Kids with Special Needs

Carissa Tozzi
·9 min read
Photo credit: Igor Emmerich - Getty Images
Photo credit: Igor Emmerich - Getty Images

From House Beautiful

Playtime is so much more important than you might realize. It's the foundation for a child’s emotional and creative development, and it helps create executive functioning (or "life") skills such as collaboration, communication, coordination, empathy, literacy, organization, planning, and problem solving.

A dedicated play area or play room in your home will give your children ample opportunity to build these skills, and such a space can be especially important if you have a child with autism, ADHD, or other developmental differences. For children with special needs, a play area can become their sensory sanctuary—a safe place for them to explore their world and their imagination.

We asked three moms raising children with learning differences to share images of the place spaces they designed, and their best tips to inspire your own developmentally appropriate and inclusive play space at home.

Rachel Fox Kipput in Arkansas

My daughter Eva just turned eight, my daughter Elsie is six, and my son Ethan is three. Eva was born with Down syndrome and a congenital heart defect. One thing that remains consistent throughout these past years for us is less is more!

I find myself becoming more and more minimal with each day that passes, creating flowing spaces that are multi-functional. When Eva was little, we found her easily frustrated and overwhelmed by too many options in the home, school, and with toys. We decided to organize toys and items in baskets, only keeping one out and rotating them throughout the week so that she had just a few items to play with. At that time, Eva really began to engage in play, without tears.

As she entered pre-school, we still found that too many items overwhelmed Eva, and that after a long day at school, she was exhausted and overstimulated. She had just turned four when we started creating "decompression" spaces, a place where Eva can go to be around soft and comfy decor, a few books, and maybe one or two toys options. A place that is calming, a place to reset, a place to get some alone time! What I found as I became more minimal with Eva, is that it also really benefited the other kids too!

Right now my kids (especially Eva) love the sherpa tulip swivel chairs from Target. We use them for tablet time, reading , and digital learning, and even pair them with the MCM table from Target. Eva is not a fan of physical therapy at home right now, but it's great to know that she is working a bit with the help of an Ergo chair. Her PT is really encouraging her to use these as much as she can since we aren't doing therapy in person right now. She also loves fluffy, soft rugs, especially the faux cowhide in the "multi-purpose" room, and her fluffy rug in her room.

If I were giving a special-needs mom advice on designing a space for their child, I would say…

● We have seen so many benefits to becoming more minimal. Creating versatile, flexible, multi-purpose, multi-functional spaces is also a big one for us.

● What is your child good at? What do they love to do? Create spaces that encourage their hobbies and talents to really shine, or calming spaces to allow them to learn or work on things they might need a little more focus on.

Amanda Booth in Seattle

Micah is our five-year-old son, who has Down syndrome and Autism. We just moved into our new home, so we are only getting started in his playroom! But what we wanted to keep in mind most was organization. Since Micah is non-verbal, making sure he knows where the toys are is key. We like to keep things simple, cozy, with lots and lots of soft crash pads. He absolutely loves jumping around and climbing.

We have really fallen in love with the toy company Lovevery. They create boxes of toys based on development, and that’s made finding the toys that interest Micah simple. They also happen to be beautiful! We also love our simple Ikea toy bins. We keep each bin specific (music, art, cars, sensory toys) so he knows where to go to get what he wants. A big area of frustration for Micah is if there’s something specific he wants and he can’t quite communicate that need to us. I totally get it… that would be tough!

If I was giving a special-needs mom advice on designing a space for their child, I would say...

● Create a space that you would feel comfortable and inspired to be in.

● I like the idea of having corners be specific: a place to crash, or a place to be calm and read books, or sit and do puzzles. I think the more specific, the easier for your kiddo to understand what’s expected of them, or where to go to get their specific needs met.

● Instead of overwhelming the space with too many toys out at once, we like to keep some things in the closet and rotate through them. That way Micah can feel like he has something new often, without making a new purchase.

Elena Fong in California

My daughter Wynter is three years old and is a very loving, hilarious, and feisty preschooler. She also has Down syndrome. With Ds, there are developmental delays, both physically and mentally. When Wynter first started working with her different therapists I paid close attention to how they worked with her. It was interesting to see how they utilized our home during her therapy sessions, and also how they engaged with her. It gave me a good understanding of what we would need to do and how we would need to approach our space to best support her development.

I made sure to include pieces that supported her physical development, like things that forced her to pull herself up, or that she had to walk towards to reach. She loves dramatic play, or "pretend play," so I included a small kitchen where she can pretend to cook. She recently got a high chair for her baby dolls and she loves to make them meals and feed them. It’s the sweetest thing to watch.

My son Nova is two years old and is a handful! He is a very active toddler who needs constant engagement and physical input. We have been able to use the same approach when it came to our "playroom" with Nova as we have with Wynter, but he is way more advanced physically. So we’ve had to get creative when it came to his need for physical contact and movement. When he needs to run, jump, and get his wiggles out we mainly get outside, whether in our backyard or in the front of the house.

We have a modest home with no room for a designated playroom, so our dining/living room space has been functioning as one for the kids. I used neutral pieces to help it feel light and uncluttered, but also to blend with the room as much as possible. I didn’t want there to be such a contrast in the "different spaces;" I wanted the kid’s space and our space to feel as seamless as possible.

I recently purchased the IKEA Flisat activity table for both kids and have been using it a lot lately. They both love to play in the water, especially Wynter, so on nice days, I’ll bring it outside and fill it with water, toys and other sensory materials. I also love Monti Kids toys. They’ve been a fun and interactive way to help support Wynter’s (and Nova’s) critical thinking and fine motor skills. Also, the quality is great and aesthetic is very pleasing to the eye.

If I were giving a special-needs mom advice on designing a space for their child, I would say…

● Be thoughtful. Try to include the interests of all your children as much as you can.

● Consider accessibility. Have furniture, surfaces, and storage pieces that your child(ren) can access easily to support independence.

● Use what you have! Get creative. That is something I learned early on from Wynter's therapists. We literally used our dining chairs as a push toy when she was working on her walking. We’ve saved caps of her snack pouches to use as pieces for her to grab to practice her fine motor skills. And we had beans from our pantry as sensory materials.

Donna Duarte Ladd in Brooklyn

My son Mateo, four, has Autism Spectrum Disorder and is particular on what he likes, and we have developed his play areas according to feedback from his teachers. Adding the same or similar playthings that he gravitates to at school helps continue a structured environment for him, which is vital for most kids on the spectrum.

A significant game-changer (recommended by Wolf + Friends) is a hammock swing that we installed in our family room. My son loves it, and without fail, if he is having a moment, the swing is magical in settling him down. And now that he is home due to COVID-19, it has saved the day many times.

A soft doll named Quinn and these wooded coins we received some time ago from a Lovevery Playkit have been a comfort my son gravitates towards. Lovevery develops toys according to the developmental stage. Although my son is now four, the toys are super sensory considerate, which is big for an autistic young child who loves texture.

If I were giving a special-needs mom advice on designing a space for their child, I would say…

● Take cues from the experts. I still take advice for what works with my son from his therapists and teachers. If his speech therapist mentions a toy or product that he is enjoying or is helping him grow, I buy it.

● Try to get over what you want. If it is plastic toys that light up and play annoying music, but this makes your little one happy, include it in the play area. It is so essential for kids with special needs to develop social and intellectually, so mixing up with your space with the toys you swore you never buy is worth it when they love it.

Carissa Tozzi is the co-founder of Wolf + Friends, the community and lifestyle platform for moms raising children with special needs.

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