April 19, 2018

Elizabeth Stankevicius

What Can Children with Special Needs Learn by Playing a Game?

Topics: Learning at Home, Learning Through Play, STEAM


How in the world do I teach different concepts, work on motor skills, and provide opportunities for social/emotional growth? By playing a game!

For over 15 years, I have worked with students who have special needs. Trying to find an activity that would supplement the curriculum, work on a targeted Individual Education Plan (IEP) goal, and keep the students engaged is not always easy. Luckily, games have helped me in that endeavor. Two games in particular that have been a classroom favorite are Animal Upon Animal and Roll & Play.

Animal Upon Animal is a game from HABA. It is one of the games in their My Very First Game series. This game has three different variations that allow for different levels of play. The main goal of the game is to stack as many animals as you can without them falling. This is a very important fine motor skill that we work on in the classroom with young learners. Usually, the norm is to use little wooden cubes to practice this skill, but Animal Upon Animal gives it a twist which is helpful to keep students engaged. As the students work on fine motor skills and hand eye coordination, they also can expand on discussing the animals and their habitats.

As mentioned earlier, HABA has three different play variations that cater to different levels of fine motor and play skills. The first variation has students flip over a sun and get the corresponding animal and the stacking begins! The second variation has three different locations. The student rolls a dice to see what location they need to place the animal they have to stack. The last variation is a cooperative play mode where they work together to stack animals before the rabbit reaches his goal. As you can see, they can play in a simpler mode and then work up to a mode where multiple steps need to be followed. The components of the game are very kid friendly. The pieces are bright and sturdy, so they are enticing for the kids and at the same time, can stand up to their play. The animal pieces are nice and chunky, so they are easy to grasp and stack. 

Roll & Play by ThinkFun is another game I play with my students. My students have loved to see “Mr. Cube” when I bring it out to play. Since the students are able to hold and squeeze Mr. Cube while they go to take their turn, it allows for some sensory input. As they move from one location to another for their turn, it allows for gross motor movement. When the student pulls a card and sees and/or is told what they need to do, they work on different concepts (color identification/matching, identifying body parts, counting, identifying animals and their sounds, and identifying emotions). What is nice about the cards is that they have a visual representation of what needs to be done as well as the written words. This allows for students who are visual learners to grasp the concept quicker. Also, the visual representation paired with words helps build student’s vocabulary. Let’s break down the different stages in which students can learn.

  • Teaching Skill Stage: The teacher can model the action that is requested on the card. The teacher then has the student repeat the action on the card. The teacher would also work on this concept throughout the day (e.g. during centers, playground, circle time, and so on).
  • Skill Acquisition: The student now can pull a card and complete the action independently or with some prompts. The teacher can then take data on the concept mastery and the prompt level needed. 
  • Skill Retention: After the student has exhibited acquisition of the concepts, the teacher can use the game as a fun way to practice this knowledge.

So, on top of all the fun we are having, the students are also working on social and independent functioning skills. Examples of goals that students with special needs may work on are ones such as:

  • Wait your turn
  • Play cooperatively with a peer
  • Follow simple one to two step directions
  • Participate in large and/or small group activities

As you can see, it is not just playing a game. It is working on skills and concepts that are important for children to know. Board games have provided a way, through the years, for my students to learn and grow while playing.


IMG_3305.jpgElizabeth Stankevicius has worked in the field of special education for over 15 years.  Her entire career, thus far, has been at Royal Palm School, which is the special center school for students with special needs in Palm Beach County. She has taught preschool special needs students for a little over 13 years and now is the school’s Behavior Resource Teacher, which services students from age 3-22.  Elizabeth has her B.A. and M.Ed in Education with a major in Exceptional Student Education from Florida Atlantic University.  She also has her National Board Certification in Exceptional Needs Specialist/Early Childhood Through Young Adulthood.  She holds teaching certifications in Exceptional Student Education, Autism Spectrum Disorders, English for Speakers of Other Languages, and Prekindergarten/Primary Education.  Elizabeth also works with homebound students with special needs and tutors students who have autism.

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