Flannel boards were my favorite when I was in kindergarten. I remember being fascinated by these pieces of fabric sticking to one another without glue. And, my kindergarten teacher had such a variety of silhouettes, I was always excited to see the next set.
But, once again, sharing flannel board play with my son was not going to happen unless I made some adaptations. Today, I’m sharing how you can use flannel boards with your child with special needs.
Why flannel boards may be a challenge for children with special needs
- A child cannot be expected to engage in imaginative play when he is not developmentally ready.
- The 2-dimentional nature of felt and flannel might be tricky for a child to manipulate if he has fine motor difficulties.
- The texture might be an issue for children with tactile sensory aversions.
- Silhouettes are sometimes difficult for some children to decipher.
- Small parts can be a choking hazard for children who still mouth everything.
Suggestions for adaptations/ modifications for flannel boards
- Don’t expect to use flannel boards for imaginative/ pretend play if your child is not at this developmental level yet. You’d just be setting yourself up for disappointment. If your child isn’t ready for pretend dress-up or imaginative play with playscapes like a doll house or farm animal set (and played with in their intended use), then you can bet that your child isn’t ready for imaginative flannel board play. It’s essentially the same thing. But that doesn’t mean you can’t use flannel boards altogether – just not for free-play/ pretend play yet.
- Begin by modeling what one does with a flannel board. I use a flannel board as an accompaniment to storytelling. When I read/ tell a story, I have the flannel board out with my cut-outs and use them as visual reenactments of the story. The first few times you do this, your child may show little interest except for attempting to throw the board on the floor. In that case, prop the board up against a wall or chair a small distance away from your child – so that he can still see it, but not touch it. Remember, you simply want to be modeling how a flannel board works. It’s an added visual as you read. (You are not depriving your child of exploration by moving it a distance away – fret not. You are going to allow plenty of exploration later.)
- Use simple, large and obvious shapes. Whether you buy pre-cut sets or make your own, it’s so important to think about these three elements: large/ over-sized, simple and obvious shapes. In other words, you want apples that look like apples, and rabbits that look like rabbits. Your child will not be able to connect with the image if it just looks like a blob sitting on board. Even if your child isn’t ready for abstract images (as opposed to the real apple), it’s ok. Your goal is for him to eventually understand that this board holds things on it that have some kind of meaning/ purpose. It will be with the repetition of seeing this board that an interest will develop. He will ultimately interact with it himself.
- Connect the flannel board objects with real objects. When using the apples flannel board, I always have an apple out and repeat, “apple” (while holding up the real apple) and “apple” (while showing the flannel board apple). You might even begin by only using the real object for a while and then introducing the flannel shapes.
- Connect flannel board objects with your weekly/ monthly theme or story. It is so beneficial to reinforce words and skills by having them show up throughout the day in many different contexts. If you are reading about apples and learning about apples, don’t make a banana flannel board set. While variety might work for children already in the pretend play stage, this would only confuse your child with special needs who is just beginning to explore flannel board use.
- Allow your child to touch flannel and felt. You don’t even need to have defined shapes yet. Start with a large sheet of felt or a large flannel blanket in his sensory bin (day 1) and have your child explore these textures for some time. Have him feel them on different parts of his body: face, arm, feet, etc. Always follow his lead and never pressure a child to play with felt or flannel (or anything else, for that matter).
- Eventually have your child touch the large cut-outs. When you are sure that your child won’t gag from touching flannel, hand him a large felt cut-out from your activity and allow him to explore it. You can work on having him “tap, tap, tap” the felt onto the flannel board. See what else he does and reinforce it with language/ verbal routines.
- Allow your child to participate in storytelling with the flannel/ felt board set. It may take several weeks of observation and exploration, but eventually have your child take-part in placing the felt shapes on (not off yet, as that may be difficult – being two-dimensional) the board as you tell a story. I recommend doing this at his adapted seat or at a table so that you can lay the flannel board flat on the table before him. This prevents the cut-out from falling off and disappointing your child. You may have to use hand-over-hand, and repeat, “tap, tap, tap” when placing each piece. And, don’t forget to praise when the shape is down: “Hurray! You did it! Hurray!” See if that doesn’t motivate him to try again. If it doesn’t – don’t insist. Just try again tomorrow.
- Like sensory bins, when playing with flannel boards, it’s wise to build up the amount of time your child plays with them. “Play” in this case includes just paying attention to you as you read and place cut-outs on the flannel board. Start with 3 – 5 minutes, and build up to 10, 15 and 20 minutes over a span of weeks or months. Children with special needs need to be given time to develop skills – not insistence to keep working at a task longer. If your child only manages 5 minutes – fine! Celebrate that and move on. You can come back to it another time.
- Place Velcro dots on the back of flannel cut-outs when learning to “pull” felt pieces off. The Velcro elevates the felt to make it easier to grasp. Only, be sure to stitch (not glue) the Velcro dot for safety purposes.
- Some additional ideas for flannel board sets: count up or down using the pieces in accordance with a song or rhyme; themes can be seasonal, color-related, shape-related or even holiday related; connect them to your child’s favorite story/ song; use PECS cards with laminated images along with the matching felt image. Flannel boards can be used with older child as well. Ask yourself how you can use felt cut-out with language or even math activities. This multi-sensory, hands-on approach is wonderful for learning experiences of all types!
Never create small parts unless you know your child can handle them safely and always supervise felt play.
Does your child play with a flannel board? How have you adapted/ modified its use?
If you want specific homeschool accommodations to meet your child’s needs, I offer consultations to parents. I’d love to be of service.