top of page
  • amykdtobik2

Creative Ways to Generate Learning Possibilities at Home When There are Special Needs

Updated: Apr 10

By Karen Kaplan

There doesn’t appear to be enough trained special education teachers these days. Paraprofessional support is also limited. The waiting list is very long on behavior specialists’ caseloads and securing Speech Therapists (ST) and Occupational Therapists (OT) can be challenging.

“So, what?” you might be asking. So, it is time for parents to do their best with what they have.

Motor development, communication development, self-help, hygiene, skills for daily living, math, social skills, and knowledge can all be nurtured by you in your home, neighborhood, and community. You do not have to wait or endure restrictions for a system that is too challenged to meet your needs when it comes to developmental delays.

You DO have to get creative. You DO have to create some time. You may need to ask family or friends for help. You may need to reach out and collaborate. You may need to think differently. But your individual’s growth is and has always been in your hands. So, start believing in yourself and your capabilities.

Let me take you on a little journey. We will first tour your home, inside and out.

  1. The kitchen is a great learning environment and a teaching one for you. Motor planning, fine motor skills, vocabulary development, reading, mathematics, and problem-solving can all be taught in the kitchen. Loading a dishwasher (motor planning and problem-solving) and using tools and equipment found in the kitchen (fine motor skills and vocabulary: on, off, stir, push, whip, cut, pour, etc.) provide hands-on practice. Following recipes can encourage reading. Meal planning and creating shopping lists involve spelling, writing, organizing, problem-solving, and remembering. It might also include budgeting and math. Putting dishes and utensils away is problem-solving and motor planning. The kitchen is a wonderland for both OT and ST goals.

  2. Proceed to your loved one’s bedroom. Do they strip and make their bed? Do they carry their dirty clothes to the laundry area, then sort, load, and unload the washer and dryer? Do they empty their own waste basket? Do they know where the big garbage cans are and when they are supposed to go out on the curb for pick up? These skills can be frequently practiced and are stepping stones to more independent living.

  3. How does their closet look? Can they find their clothes? Do you encourage them to pick out their own outfits and dress? Can they match colors, shirts, pants, jackets etc.? Can they choose appropriate attire for specific purposes or events?

  4. Let us now enter the bathroom. Do they know how to turn on and off lights, water faucets, or shower and bath knobs? Again, this is an assessment of problem-solving to nurture independence and motor planning. For example, can they get out their toothbrush, open the toothpaste, and squeeze the right amount onto the brush? If they are unable, why? Have you modeled the process, paused, and waited for them to try?

  5. Okay, now to the family room. Games, the TV, and, of course, music are great teaching tools. Games encourage socializing, vocabulary development, taking turns, and asking questions. TV shows can educate (National Geographic and other documentaries are available on all THEIR favorite topics). Music can stimulate movement, encourage exercise, and create the opportunity to have a dance party or celebration with others (birthday party, holiday party, choreographed performance, etc.). You can practice event planning too, even if you are only including household members—make an occasion of it! Create invitations (letters, cards, email). Greet guests. Make treats. Coordinate games. All these roles enhance learning, problem-solving, and social skills.

  6. Hmm…into your dining area we go. Do you require your individual to set the table? They could count the number of people, then set out all the utensils, plates, and cups to match. They can learn how to start a conversation at the dining table. They can learn to pass food items and in doing so, work on sharing and fine motor skills. Clearing the table is a great self-help skill and helps your loved one take on the responsibility of a family chore.

  7. Okay, let us now head outside. Do they know how to turn a hose off and on, water plants, or turn on the sprinkler system? On a sunny day, have you asked them to help you vacuum out the car and wash the outside? Wow, why not? How many people can sit in your vehicle? How many tires are there? How many windows or seat belts does the car have?

  8. A garden expands outdoor learning options and can help your loved one connect with nature. So, plant one! What grows in each season? Can your loved one measure the growth of a plant over time? Show them how tomatoes get to the grocery store or how many kinds of tomatoes there actually are. Now you are teaching math, science, and farm-to-table know-how. Sharing harvests with the community is socializing. You can even open your garden to create a communal space with neighbors, which can also help your individual form relationships.

  9. Backyards are great for teaching as well. Is there weeding to be done, raking of leaves to deal with, or grass to be mowed? Depending on the age of your individual, at least part of each of these activities can be learned. Each of these activities is an aspect of learning how to take care of their own home. That is so, so important.

  10. Don’t forget the garage if you have one. Do you store tools there? Perhaps you can teach your loved one the names of tools and how to use them. Then, help them create an original project with those tools—build something new. Hammering, nailing, screwing in things, gluing things, and sawing teach fine motor skills and motor planning. The process of construction nurtures independent living skills, too. You can expand your individual’s vocabulary by naming the tools (hammer, saw, screwdriver) as they are used, then teaching the verb associated with the tool’s function (hammering, drilling, screwing, sawing). Next, have them count out the number of nails needed or use a tape measure to determine the length and width of something. There’s your math taught for the day.

Venture into the neighborhood Open your eyes to the possibilities outside your home. Taking walks offers exercise, develops balance and strength, and allows you to point out key areas of your neighborhood. For example, you might notice different kinds of vehicles, house styles, colors, or species of trees and flowers. Teach your individual to skate through the neighborhood or ride a bike in their cul-de-sac.

You might choose different businesses to visit (post office, fire station, police station, library, grocery store, gas station, etc.) and begin to show your loved one how these places support their and the family’s needs. This develops awareness, vocabulary, socialization, and moving through, accessing, and using new places.

One more idea Think of all the packages Amazon, UPS, and FedEx deliver nowadays. Teach your individual to open them. Teach them to read the names and addresses of your deliveries and explain how your family distributes mail to the recipients. This might also be an excellent opportunity to educate your loved one about postage. Let them pop any inflated packing bubbles and break them down to put into the recycling can. This develops their motor skills and supports their sensory needs. If you are creative, you can make things out of leftover packaging and Styrofoam. Re-purpose the leftover boxes if that is possible. Measure various boxes with a tape measure or ruler, then ask which is bigger or smaller. You might even have them weigh packages before opening them. There, now you’ve added math!


There is so much you can accomplish with everything you deal with daily if only you consider the possibilities. When other resources are hard to come by, remember what you can do with what you have right now.

For free resources on managing diagnoses, mobility, and accessibility support, self-advocacy, personal rights, educational rights, occupational therapy, mental health support, schools and camps, transitioning to adulthood, job opportunities, financial planning, supporting the family/caretakers, subscribe to Exceptional Needs Today. Subscribing to our award-winning e-magazine is free, and it enables us to connect with more readers, helping us support the special needs community more effectively. We publish a new issue every quarter - delivered straight to your email.

Karen Kaplan is a native San Franciscan. She completed her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona, in Speech Pathology and Audiology. She minored in Special Education and obtained her Speech Therapist and Special Education credentials in California. Karen worked as a speech therapist for both public schools and private schools for 20 years before opening her own residential and education program for students with autism spectrum disorders. She worked in credential programs at Sacramento State University as well as UC Davis and spent 20 additional years directing private schools for those with autism and similar learning challenges. Karan founded a small non-profit, Offerings, which travels globally helping other cultures understand those with developmental challenges. For seven years, she founded and facilitated an autism lecture series and resource fair in Northern California. Karen still facilitates an Autism Awesomeness event yearly, showcasing the strengths and talents of those who live on the spectrum. She is currently consulting, helping families, schools, and centers for children, teens, and adults. She has published articles to help bring ideas and strategies to families and professionals, providing hope. Karen authored Reach Me Teach Me in the early 70s and went on to publish her second book, On the Yellow Brick Road Finding Hope for Autism, in 2017. Her third book, Typing to Heaven and Back, is not about autism but about having important conversations with those we love. Be sure to connect with Karen—she is always ready to listen and think of the possibilities.

60 views0 comments


Rated 0 out of 5 stars.
No ratings yet

Add a rating
bottom of page