My daughter, Miss Z, has multiple disabilities.  She can’t sit independently, crawl, stand or walk. She has little purposeful movement in her hands.   She has a visual impairment that means her vision may be quite good one day, and then poor the next. She is non-verbal. She has no interest in toys and a limited interest in television.   But none of this reflects on her intellect – she is a bright spark with a cheeky personality and a determination to get her own way.

Miss Z has recently turned four years old.  She is no longer a baby - she is a little girl. And even if she is a little girl trapped inside her own body, she still deserves to be treated like a four year old, not an infant. One of the greatest challenges in treating her like a four year old is coming up with ideas to entertain and stimulate her. Of course our team of speech, occupational and physiotherapists are never short of suggestions on activities to do at home, but that isn’t entertainment, that’s therapy.  Therapy isn’t always fun – in fact in Miss Z’s mind, it never is. And therapy involves me (or someone else) doing the activities with her.  We do our share of therapy at home, but we can’t spend the whole day doing it – Miss Z would hate it, her older sister would claim neglect, and I would never get anything else done.  At four years old, Miss Z is quite happy to spend time on her own.  In fact, she enjoys being left on the floor to do her own thing, and I’m keen to encourage this independence. That said, just leaving Miss Z lying on the floor feels a bit like poor parenting. And while not wanting to force her to participate in ‘therapy’, I do want her to explore, discover and benefit in the same way other children do from more traditional play.  Miss Z’s therapists, carers and I have come up with a number of activities that Miss Z can do on her own, without my constant involvement, but are more developmentally and intellectually beneficial than just lying or rolling on the floor.   Information on ways for children with multiple disabilities to have fun or entertain themselves is scarce, so I wanted to share these ideas with other parents in a similar situation. And it isn’t all altruism – I’m hoping other parents will share their ideas, giving me some new activities for Miss Z, too. 

However, when reading my suggestions, please keep in mind that all children have different abilities and what might be a great activity for one child to do independently may require greater supervision – or not be appropriate at all – for another. You know your child best. So, here are Miss Z’s favourite independent play activities (in order of her preference at the moment):

The big crinkly blanket When Miss Z is on the floor, she loves to rock from her back to her side (she can’t quite manage a full roll) and kick her legs.  Recently, her occupational therapist gave us a silver emergency blanket – the type that can be found in some first aid kits and are given to runners after a marathon to keep them warm. They’re also known as space blankets or foil survival blankets. It is very thin, virtually indestructible, and makes a fantastic, crinkly noise whenever it moves.  Miss Z loves to lie on it, roll on it, and kick it with her feet. Most kids love them, so it is a great activity to encourage Miss Z’s older sister to join in, too. The occupational therapist says it strengthens the understanding of cause and effect, but all Miss Z knows is that it makes a great sound. 

Sensory quilt Since she has limited purposeful use of her hands, Miss Z explores mostly by using her mouth or her feet. A local quilting charity gave us a sensory quilt for Miss Z to explore and she really enjoys it.   A sensory quilt is a quilt made from fabrics of different textures and colours. Ours is quite large, so it takes some to explore the whole thing. Miss Z loves to seek out her favourite squares and rub her mouth along the satin ribbon strips.  Our quilt also has various objects sewn along the edges of the quilt for her to explore, which includes everything from ribbons to knitted flowers to big buttons and even a small pair of plastic maracas.  Some of the objects aren’t appropriate for a child who could put the objects in their mouth (they’re fine for Miss Z). Although Miss Z loves kicking the maracas, I’ve stepped on them several times in bare feet and am not so enthusiastic about them. If you don’t know any quilters and don’t feel like getting crafty yourself, I’ve also modified this idea, using a variety of cheap placemats. I’ve found a number of inexpensive placemats in different materials (plastic, bamboo, felt) in discount shops and I scatter them around her on the floor. Although not quite as exciting as the quilt, she will still explore them as she inches her way around the floor. 

Hanging toys When she was a baby, Miss Z loved her baby gym, even though she rarely touched the toys that were hanging above her. When she got older, we tried her in a “little room” – a specially built area with objects hanging from it that the child can explore and play with – to variable success. However, Miss Z seems to tolerate my own version much better.

There are lots of examples online of very handy people who have built their own little rooms. Since I’m not that handy, I took the easy route and bought a cheap baby gate. I hung a number of household objects with different textures, weights, temperatures, sounds and sizes from the rails with elastic. I also have them hanging low enough that Miss Z doesn’t need to reach up to touch them – they all nearly touch her.  When she is rolling on the floor, I can hang it above her (either over her upper body to encourage her touching things with her hands, or over her legs, so she can kick the objects), by resting the ends of the gate on two footstools or the sofa and a little table. 

There are days when Miss Z obviously enjoys hitting or kicking particular objects. There are other days when she is clearly annoyed by all these objects hanging in her way. But you never know until you try. It makes me happy to see Miss Z “playing” independently – or at the very least keeping herself entertained. And it gives me the precious opportunity to do a few chores, give her big sister some attention, or even just enjoy a cup of tea.  What ideas have you come up with to encourage your child with special needs to have fun?

Things you might like

Check out the Playpak

The portable activity kit. Fun therapy at home or on the move

Find out more

Other articles you might enjoy...

Special Needs

The definitive guide to talking to a special needs parent

It seems like everywhere you turn, there is another article listing five, ten even…

Special Needs

Music to feed the soul

Music first entered our lives in the hospital.  Looking back on it now, I realize…

Special Needs

Our DIY assistance dog

I obsess about things. They get stuck in my mind and I just can’t stop thinking…

Survey icon

Public Opinion…

Do you use a voice-activated speaker such as Amazon Echo or Google Home?