Play Ideas to Encourage School-Aged Development

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Sometimes we forget about play for our elementary-school aged students! Children learn so much through play, and while a focus on academics has its place, kids definitely need time to learn through trial and error as well as free play! Check out my blog on play ideas to encourage preschool aged development for ideas for younger kiddos! The resource I highlighted in that blog, the Play Center Visual Support resource, is great for early learners!

As a school-based occupational therapist (OT), I spend most of my day playing with kids! No fancy equipment required [see 10 Almost Free OT Materials blog]! While it may all seem like fun and games, I am able to target and develop a variety of specific skills through these game-like activities! Read below to get some ideas!

Play Outside!


With the prevalence of video games and screen time on the rise in our society, fewer and fewer children are playing outside regularly! Social skill development often happens on the playground. Turn taking, emotional regulation, and perspective taking [among other things] can all be addressed while playing outside! Gross motor skills like running, jumping, climbing, balancing, catching, throwing, etc. are also developed. Motor planning and hand eye coordination will improve. Playing outside is a great way to build strength and endurance as well as healthy exercise habits without the children even realizing it! The sensory input provided by the “heavy work” provided in outdoor activities is also very regulating. Consider these outdoor play activities to build developmental skills:

  • Tag Games [sharks & minnows, freeze tag, octopus tag]
  • Jungle Gym [monkey bars, rock walls, climbing structures, swings]
  • Jump rope [double dutch, individual, “snake game”]
  • Sport games [kick ball, soccer, ultimate frisbee]

What about our students with mobility needs? Let’s get creative! Stephanie has a great blog regarding adapted playground equipment! Everyone can benefit from outdoor play!


One of my favorite ways to encourage fine motor skill development and the practice of scissor and handwriting skills in a play-based way is through crafts! The Simply Special Ed Visual Craft Bundle has TONS of great ideas! I love how each craft targets different skills. Kids can be so independent with these crafts too since they all come with visual schedules/directions for each step! Check out my other blog on working on fine motor skills with visual crafts to see all the specific skills that are targeted with this FREE visual craft! These are a few of my favorites:

  • Stained Glass Snowflakes
  • Shaving Cream Shamrock
  • Fork Tulips
  • Bubble Wrap Starfish
  • Apple Basket Stamping
  • Tin Foil Ornaments

Beyond fine motor skills and sequencing, you can also target visual perceptual skills with crafts! Have a model craft, and have a student copy it. Have a group of students make something and see if their peers can make one that looks the same! The possibilities are endless! Since you can be so creative with the materials used in crafts, they never seem repetitive or “get old”. Seasonal themes are easy to incorporate, and students get to engage their creativity!

Sensory Play


If I had to pick, my favorite Simply Special Ed resource is probably the Sensory Recipes. All of my students love them; regardless of ability level or goal areas! They are such an engaging, and easily differentiated play-based activity that elicits such skill development. Check out all the skills you can develop through this sensory play:

  • Improved tactile processing
  • Engagement of a variety of sensory systems [tactile, visual, olfactory]
  • Bilateral coordination [2 handed skills]
  • Executive functioning
  • Fine motor skills
  • Direction following
  • Pre-vocational and life skills

Check out this whole blog on how to target fine motor skills with visual recipes that includes even more information on how to build fine motor skills with these activities! I mention sensory bins in my blog on play ideas to encourage preschool aged development, but this applies to school-aged students as well. I always look for ways that students can be involved in the set up and/or clean [or preparation/creation!] of activities because it not only builds independence, but a whole host of other skills! The same applies with sensory bins! Have older students make their own! Outside of the specific sensory recipes, I also love to have my students cook! It can be a great way to build life skills along with fine motor skills. Have students play “restaurant” and make food for one another! Check out the visual recipe bundle here!

Play is the primary occupation of children

Think outside of the box when considering play in your classroom [or home!] setting. Rather than looking at it as “free” or “wasted” time, consider all the great skills that a play activity could improve. How can you quickly adjust/adapt the activity to better target specific skill development? Holding cards in your hand for Go Fish! can be a great way to work on in-hand manipulation skills. A game of memory builds much needed visual and working memory skills required for other school tasks like reading and writing. And all in all, the more students are engaged, the more they learn! So, let’s play!

Interested in this “play” topic? I encourage you to check out OT Blogger, Taylor’s, great blog on the important question: “Is the Term Appropriate Play, Appropriate?“. Are you a teacher looking to add more play into your classroom? Check out this blog on Play Supports in the Special Education Classroom.

The post Play Ideas to Encourage School-Aged Development appeared first on Simply Special Ed.

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