A Time for Play

Featured Articles / Special Needs //


Enhance a child’s learning experience


“There is an appointed time for everything. And there is a time for every event under heaven” (Ecclesiastes 3:1). The author of Ecclesiastes goes on to give a list of many things that have a specific time for them to be accomplished. While a time to play is not specifically mentioned, it may be assumed that it would be included in “for everything.”

Play is a very important part of the development of children, those who have special needs as well as those who do not. For many children with special needs, play does not come naturally; therefore, time, money and many additional resources are spent to assist the child in learning how to play. There are many different types of therapies designed with this specific purpose in mind.


While play is a very important part of a child’s development, it is not typically seen as something that is important to implement into the Sunday school or children’s church setting. Yet, there are so many aspects of play that can actually enhance a child’s learning experience and help them have a better understanding of who Jesus is. There are also many practical aspects of play that can be implemented into the special needs class which will assist the child in their social development.


It is common knowledge that children learn better using all five senses. Many children’s pastors and ministry leaders will structure their programs and ministries to reflect this. There have been studies and research indicating that the more modalities that are used the more likely a child (or adult for that matter) will retain. This is why many students will type or write notes during a lecture, because if they are only listening, they are less likely to retain what they’ve heard.


If we want any child, but especially a child with special needs, to learn and retain truths and concepts about Jesus and His love for them, we need to utilize the five senses. What better way to use the five senses than play.


A practical example of using play in the special needs classroom is following a format called Sensory Diet. Sensory Diet is when you schedule or structure your classroom environment around play. Since many children with special needs struggle with transitions, the sensory diet format provides for time to play before going into the Bible story and worship time. Most children with special needs are very visual, so it’s important to post a picture schedule with the words next to the activity. Here is a format that might be used.


Bubbles, play dough, blocks

Wash hands





Craft or coloring page

Playground or outside time

DVD or more play time.


During the unstructured playtime, you can have several different choices for the children. These toys all provide important sensory input for children who have special needs. It is also very helpful if the child has a one-on-one volunteer or helper who can guide him/her through the playtime experience. Games and puzzles are great to have in the classroom as well.


When children have the opportunity to play before going into a structured learning time, they are more prepared to sit and listen to the story. Of course, the more visual aids and play you can incorporate in the story time the better. Provide the children with the opportunity to act out the story as someone reads it or let them use puppets as the story is being told, if they are able to do this.


Providing opportunities to play also helps children with special needs to develop their social skills. Putting a game out and assisting two children as they play together helps teach them how to take turns, share, get along and engage with each other. The volunteer or leader takes the lead and brings the two together. What a powerful tool to assist these children to be better equipped in their social skills.


Play also helps teach sequencing skills, critical thinking, as well as open the doors to creativity and imagination. Give a child with special needs play dough and sit with him as he creates something from nothing. You can use this during a lesson on creation as you talk about God creating the world from nothing and making people.


The possibilities are endless on how play can be used in the special needs ministry classroom. One important thing to remember is that all moments are teachable moments. It is not just what is said during the Bible story time that will help a child learn who Jesus is. Children learn more by doing and from the actions of others. They will learn about a loving, creative God as you show them how to play. Remember, there is a time for everything under heaven.


Suggested list of Sensory Equipment

Exercise balls (Wal-Mart or Target)

Mini- trampoline

Oversize beanbag and or smaller beanbags

DVD player to play videos that can catch attention and teach

Snolzelum bubble tubes

Oversize books

Oversize coloring books

Plastic tunnels


Mini basketball set

Swing or indoor hammock swing


Suggested list of Sensory Toys

Soft blocks


Marble works

Mega blocks

Cars, trucks, fire trucks

Noah’s ark animals

Small beanbag toss

Dress-up clothes


Squish balls

Bubbles and bubble machines

Crayons and plain white paper

Puzzles (preschool and above)

Sequencing games and toys



Sensory Equipment and Toy Resources:

Flaghouse (special populations)

Constructive Playthings

Exceptional Parent Magazine

Toys R Us Special Needs

Oriental Trading Company





About the Author

Dr. Julie Keith is the Special Needs Pastor at First Church of the Nazarene in Pasadena, CA. She has been involved in the special needs community for the past 24 years in both vocational and professional ministry settings. She lives in Riverside, CA with her husband, Jeff, and 7-year-old son, Dade. In her spare time, Julie enjoys reading, scrapbooking and going to Disneyland with her family.