April is National Autism Awareness Month, and as such, we'll be highlighting advocates, products and thoughtful ideas that are moving the needle forward for all children with learning differences, special needs and autism. And because everything begins at home, it's important to consider ways in which your space, particularly where and how your child plays, can be used most productively. Dr. Mary Barbera, author of Turn Autism Around: An Action Guide for Parents of Young Children with Early Signs of Autism, tells Motherly, "When creating a dedicated play area, find a comfortable spot where you can engage with your child. I recommend including a child-sized table which can be paired up with reinforcing items that your child loves, such as bubbles and a special drink. Once your child is happily sitting at the table with you for short 10 or 15-minute sessions, I recommend adding puzzles, pictures of family members and other toys to teach your child to talk, imitate, and play. One important thing is not to consider or call these table time sessions 'work'. Instead, call them 'learning time,' 'mommy time,' or 'table time.'" Good advice.

The principles of a Montessori education can also be applied to children who learn differently and at their own pace. Stacy Keane, a certified Montessori teacher and part of the Learning team at Monti Kids (a subscription box provider of Montessori toys) has offered some additional tips to create a nurturing and supportive environment for your child to play and grow.

4 tips to create a play space for a child with special needs:


Low shelves and minimalism

"Montessori allows a child to fully focus on their toys by curating an environment free of distractions, with limited materials on a low shelf. This helps a child independently select their toys and also focus to get the greatest benefits from their play," writes Keane.

Choose child-powered toys

Montessori principles also encourage the use of child-powered toys, which children activate on their own. "As a child is working with these toys they are building their brain while learning new skills. When playing with an active toy (one that lights up and makes sounds), a child will press a button to be entertained, which limits growth opportunities. With a child-powered toy, for example, a child will need to reach and grasp to pick up a ball and put it in the object permanence box to achieve the 'pay off' of the ball reappearing," writes Keane.

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Special needs play space ideas inspired by Montessori
Special needs play space ideas inspired by Montessori

Encourage gross motor skills work

Another benefit to keeping toys at the child's level is that it entices important gross motor work as a child is compelled to independently select a toy. Elena Fong, who has a daughter with Down syndrome, says, "When my daughter was younger her physical therapist suggested that having shelving and toys at her level was ideal for encouraging her to move, reach, stand and cruise around. This helped strengthen her muscle tone and encourage her to eventually walk."

Observation

Montessori encourages observing the child's interest to continue to rotate toys and materials on their shelf to meet their developmental needs. Keane and the team at Monti Kids recommend that parents of children with special needs reach out for additional support from their child's team of caregivers and therapists to determine which toys are best for their child's current developmental needs. Kristina Johnson, Motherly assistant news editor and mama to a 3 year old son with special needs, writes, "Having the right toys for where my son is at developmentally is really important. It's frustrating for him when he can't figure out the 'right' way to play with something, and that leads to destruction. When he knows what to do with a toy and can engage with it properly, he's so proud of himself."

And if your child is toddler-age or above, as you create your child's play space, consider these questions: What is your child good at? What do they love? Try creating a space that will encourage their hobbies and talents to be front and center, or a more "chill" space to allow them to learn or work on things they might need a little more focus on.