At HomeSphero Team
A kids' hands work on a sorting puzzle.

There can often be challenges when it comes to keeping students with special needs on track in education, especially when using traditional approaches to teaching. Meeting the needs of students with special needs often requires thinking outside the box.  

This article looks at guided play-based learning as a means of meeting the unique needs of special needs learners. Guided play-based learning involves a blend of student-initiated and educator-supported learning, both of which build upon a kid’s innate desire to play. This type of learning gives students with special needs a genuine alternative to traditional learning methods, building their confidence while encouraging their cognitive and social development.  

The Concept of Play-Based Learning   

A young kid laughs while playing with Sphero indi.

In the most simplistic sense, “play” might be seen as something kids do when they’re not learning — when the bell rings for recess, for example. However, play as a means of cognitive and social development has been posited by educational theorists for more than a century, with proponents like John Dewery and Jean Piaget.  

What these theorists believed, and what is now widely accepted, is that play forms an important part of a child’s early learning. This is because it helps them understand concepts through hands-on experience while also developing their physical and emotional abilities.   

In an educational context, play-based learning involves teachers creating an environment for play that encourages personal development. Rather than strictly controlling the play activities, teachers can gently guide the play by providing materials and equipment, suggesting goals, and engaging with and encouraging the play where necessary.  

An alternative way of thinking about play-based learning was posited in the 1980s by Seymour Papert, who argued that the best and most effective teaching method is “hard fun” learning. “Once I was alerted to the concept of ‘hard fun,’ I began listening for it and heard it over and over,” Papert wrote. “It is expressed in many different ways, all of which boil down to the conclusion that everyone likes hard challenging things to do, and complex artifacts to play with.”  

In other words, play does not have to be self-indulgent or thoughtless. Rather, it can open up a student’s creativity to help them solve challenges.  

How Play-Based Learning Can Help Students with Special Needs  

Students with special needs can sometimes shy away from traditional learning methods. Due to the more structured nature these learning methods sometimes require, students with intellectual and developmental disabilities can have a difficult time absorbing, retaining, and benefiting from a standard curriculum.   

Play-based learning, however, creates a looser structure where learning is more natural for students with special needs. “Play allows all students, no matter their needs, to learn,” explains Illinois-based Sphero Hero Karyn Lisowski, a Special Education Teacher by day and coding teacher by night. “Students discover skills at their own pace, and they choose which activities interest them.”  

In a research paper on the importance of play in early childhood special education, Lifter et al. note that “a variety of assessments, interventions, and curricula use play activities for implementing a wide variety of developmental goals (e.g. language, social, and motor goals) because of the natural context that play provides.”  

Motor Skills  

Play-based learning can contribute to the development of kids’ gross motor skills (sitting, balancing, grasping objects, etc.) and their fine motor skills (writing, drawing, cutting paper with scissors, etc.) more than static learning approaches. This is because play-based learning typically involves an active element.  

This makes play-based learning highly beneficial for students with physical impairments, especially when there is a low level of pressure on the student, and they can carry out the active tasks at their own pace.  

A kids' hands using scissors to cut out a drawing of a rocket ship.

Cognitive Development & Problem Solving  

It is widely accepted that learning through play-based activities contributes to a kid’s cognitive development from a very early age. Much of Piaget’s theory of cognitive development is centered around play, which, he argued, children use to construct knowledge.   

Structured play typically involves an objective, encouraging the development of problem-solving skills.   

Communication & Social Skills  

For students with special needs, including those on the autism spectrum, social-emotional learning is one of the most important aspects of their education.  

With play-based learning implemented into a special needs student’s curriculum, educators can create learning scenarios that involve group discussions, peer-to-peer collaboration, and teacher-student connection.  

Independence: Emotional Development & Self-Confidence  

Play-based learning can help with young student’s adaptive development, including their ability to do things independently with self-confidence. Play-based activities can be less likely to lead to frustration than rigidly structured tasks, giving special needs learners the time and space to arrive at solutions on their own.   

Many educators turn to Sphero’s play-based learning toolsets to promote exploratory learning. “Sphero allows a safe environment where a child, of any ability, can test a solution, fail, and try again until the Sphero works,” says Lisowski.   

Implementing Play-Based Learning in Special Needs Education  

A kid sits on the ground and drives a Sphero Mini through an obstacle course.

Games, play-based activities, and lessons designed around “hard fun” can be suitable for all students, but teachers should remember that learners can exhibit different levels of development — even during play.  

Implementing play-based learning in special needs education should therefore involve adapting activities to suit the needs of individual students, creating an inclusive play environment that leaves no student behind. If educators can tailor their play-based learning lesson plans to meet the needs of students with special needs, they can aid the physical, cognitive, communicative, socioemotional, and adaptive development of their entire class.  

With a wide selection of play-based learning tools, including pre-reader-friendly programmable robots for ages 4+, Sphero offers students the ability to take on creative, educational challenges that are suited to their personal capabilities. Educators can follow Sphero’s suggested lesson plans or allow students to use the provided materials freely, overseeing and encouraging play in a way that benefits their students.   

To discover more information on how to implement play-based learning into your remote learning environment, browse our activities page.  

About the Author
The Sphero Team

The Sphero Team is comprised of current and former educators, education content and curriculum writers, product designers, engineers, executive leadership, and other experts in their fields. Learn more about who we are and what we do at

At homeAt school