Some kids with learning and thinking differences may have trouble with playground social rules and equipment. Here are common playground problems and how to help your child avoid them.
Being bullied or witnessing bullying
How to help: Be approachable and proactive. Explain what bullying is and make sure your child knows they can come to you (or a teacher) if they experience it or see it. Tell your child it’s OK to walk away if they feel unsafe or if using words to defend themself isn’t working. Learn more about what to do if you suspect bullying at school.
Being too aggressive with other kids
Kids with learning and thinking differences sometimes lack impulse control and have trouble filtering what they say. They may push or shove other kids, run without paying attention, or be unknowingly insulting. It’s also possible they don’t realize when they’re being too forceful.
How to help: Set ground rules for physical aggression, so that your child knows the consequences ahead of time. Encourage your grade-schooler to use words instead of their body to communicate. Remind your child that getting hit or shoved hurts: “It’s not appropriate to hit other kids. If you want a turn, ask, ‘Can I have a turn please?’ ”
Dealing with winning or losing
Kids who have trouble with impulse control and regulating their emotions may gloat about winning and make other kids feel bad about losing. Likewise, they may get really upset when they lose a game and then insist others cheated. (Read an expert’s tips to help impulsive kids cope with losing.)
How to help: Point out that if your child makes other kids feel bad, they aren’t going to want to play with your child anymore. Remind your grade-schooler that playground games are just games and that it’s OK to feel good about winning, but it’s not OK to make others feel bad. Teach phrases that show good sportsmanship, such as “Good game!”
Not being able to handle the equipment
Kids with motor skills issues, like , may have a hard time using playground equipment. Climbing ladders, using the monkey bars, swinging, and even sliding require being able to coordinate many different body movements.
How to help: Practice when the playground is free. Your child may feel less self-conscious when other kids aren’t around. You can help your child break down the steps and practice doing the things they like best. You can also try these fun activities to help your child improve gross motor skills.
Not taking turns or following directions
On the playground, kids have to share, take turns, and communicate with others. Whether they’re playing an organized game or waiting their turn, this can be hard for kids with learning and thinking differences. That’s because paying attention, understanding social cues, and processing information can be trouble spots.
How to help: Model taking turns and sharing. Practice the language your child needs to know, such as “my turn,” “your turn,” or even “listen to me!” Let your child know it’s OK to ask a peer or a teacher to clarify and break rules down into steps. Explore other ways to help your child interpret social cues.
Not wanting to play with other kids
Playground time involves social skills. This includes sharing, taking turns, and joining conversations. Your child may not be sure how to start a conversation or how to ask to join a game. Your grade-schooler may not understand when other kids are inviting them to play. This can make it hard to develop friendships.
How to help: Practice what your child can say to other kids. “Hi, I’m Tiffany. What’s your name?” and “Do you want to play on the monkey bars with me?” You can also help your child figure out when it’s OK to join a large playground game without specifically asking. Get more tips on how to help your child fit in and interact with peers.
Taking risks on playground equipment
Kids with learning and thinking differences can have trouble with impulse control and may act before they think. And kids with may not feel pain as strongly as other kids. This can result in risky behavior like jumping from too high, swinging too hard, or roughhousing too much with other kids. (Read more about how sensory issues can impact motor skills.)
How to help: Talk to your child about taking a breath and thinking before they act. To lower the risk of getting hurt during falls, visit playgrounds that have sand, wood chips, or synthetic turf, and make sure your child is supervised.
The playground is a ripe teasing ground. Some of it is good-natured joking around: “Whoa, you’re super-fast with those new shoes.” And some of it is just mean: “Those new shoes are really ugly!” Kids with learning and thinking differences can have a hard time telling the difference between the two.
How to help: Explain the difference between teasing and friendly joking. Show your child the body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions that go with each. You can also help your child practice things to say when they are teased. For example, “I didn’t like that,” or “That hurt my feelings.”
About the author
About the author
Amanda Morin is the author of “The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education” and the former director of thought leadership at Understood. As an expert and writer, she helped build Understood from its earliest days.
Molly Algermissen, PhD is an associate professor of medical psychology at Columbia University Medical Center and clinical director of PROMISE.