Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Importance of Play

Free Technology for Teachers posted about this TED video today. It's a video I've been meaning to watch and FT4T prompted me to go ahead and do it today (I like to give credit when the work of other people leads me down new paths). Now, we all know play is important, especially for young kids, right? How many of us recognize the importance of play throughout the life span? Stuart Brown shares his views and research into the importance of play for everybody at every age. Check out his work at the National Institute for Play. The video got me to thinking, do we let kids play enough? Do we let them play at all? And, most important to me, how do we encourage play behaviors among people with severe disabilities, especially older kids, teens, and adults?

The world of a person with complex disabilities is often consumed by their needs: the need to perform caregiving routines, the need for a variety of medical procedures, the need to participate in various therapies designed to improve the person's function. Then throw in school, which is often very results oriented--the need to produce a project, the need to have measurable results, the need to collect data. You need to do this, you need to do that. Need Need Need. Doesn't leave much in the way of "personal" time, let alone "play" time. But according to Dr. Brown's research, play is as great a "need" in life as anything else. Play develops social skills, problem solving skills, adaptability, creativity. It creates balance and self satisfaction. It relieves stress, eases anxiety, and enhances happiness.

Play activities are highly prevalent in programs for very young children. In fact, these programs are typically built around the concept of "play," goals are written with play outcomes, and play activities are engineered for access and success. But what about older children, teens, and adults? Is play engineered into their daily activities? Do we get too hung up on "age appropriate?" What should "play" look like for older age groups? What could play look like? Think about the Siftables I mentioned in an earlier post. Now THAT is play! So how can we utilize the resources we have available to us to create play opportunities not only for our students but also the adults/staff who work with them?

I think we do a lot of play in my class but do we do enough? Do we encourage the right kinds of play? Often, I think for us, play time is a reward or filler activity, not the central activity itself. Play is what we do in between the "important" stuff. Maybe I need to rethink that approach a bit. I have one student in particular who I'm struggling with on curriculum. He is more than capable of matching to sample, sorting by one attribute, identifying vocabulary items from objects as well as photos, identifying body parts, doing "put in" tasks, and numerous other skills common to classrooms like mine and featured in developmental profiles, curricula, and even state standards. BUT this kid has absolutely NO INTEREST WHATSOEVER in these tasks. NO reward is big enough. He'll do one or two trials and then that's it. Drill and practice is not his thing. How do I know he can do these things though? Because I've seen signs of it when he is playing on his own. So maybe I need to rethink our approach. How do we turn these traditional "skill and drill" tasks into playtime while keeping it "measurable" for data purposes?

According to Dr. Brown's research, there are essentially seven different "types" of play, all of which are important to the development of a balanced person. I got to thinking about these different types or categories of play and how a severe disability can impact a person's ability to engage in them...

Attunement play: this is probably the very earliest type of play people engage in. It begins in infancy: baby smiles, mom smiles. It helps develop that sense of connectedness and security. It is even very early level cause and effect understanding. I would think attunement play would be very difficult for kids who have spent a large part of their early lives in the midst of medical interventions (think preemies in isolettes for long periods of time). How do sensory impairments impact attunement play? And what about people (not just small children) with low awareness levels because of constant seizures, high levels of medication, other physiological issues that prevent them from developing an awareness of anything outside of themselves? Even typically developing kids can develop "attachment disorder" when their efforts at attunement play aren't rewarded. And we hear all the time about parents who have had children in long-term medical care who have difficulty "bonding" with their babies. Do we recognize attunement play when we see it? Do we engage in it? Encourage it?

Body play and movement: aahh! Here's an area many of us know a lot about. We all recognize that kids who can move and explore on their own at an early age typically learn more faster than kids who can't. "Learning about self movement structures an individual’s knowledge of the world - it is a way of knowing, and we actually, through movement and play, think in motion." ( What profound meaning this has for our kids who have extreme difficulty moving on their own, who are "tied up" with machinery, equipment, and so on. Who are coached and supported through every movement in an effort to "normalize tone" or prompt a desired response or "fix" what is wrong. How often does the "intervention" actually cause more problems in other areas? Do we take the time to step back and just let kids move on their own? I think this what I like most about Lilli Nielson's Active Learning approach. It is all about play and independence and figuring things out for yourself. The method advocates a "hands off" approach from adults and lets kids simply, well, play. We employ these techniques all the time in my classroom, with great success in some instances, and little to no success in others. It just depends on the kid, the moment, the staff, and a thousand other little variables that all add up.

Object play: we also tend to recognize the importance of manipulating objects. Object play develops problem solving skills--what does this do? How do I make this work? What happens when I do this? How do we encourage object play in kids with severe disabilities? What is "meaningful" object play and what is seemingly less productive "stimming" on objects? Is "stimming" really a bad thing or is it another form of play? How do we help kids with poor hand skills (little or no grasp, reach, strength, low tone, high tone, etc.) to engage in object play? I use Active Learning but what else is out there? Does technology like switch use enhance object play or interfere with this type of learning by removing the learner from directly interacting with objects? How can switches be engineered to allow for experimentation and not just "turn it on/turn it off" activities?

Social play: another area we are all familiar with. How often do we target social skills as a goal? Social play develops our sense of belonging and acceptance. It teaches us to interact with and get along with others. Kids with intensive needs are so often "separate" from others. They might engage in "parallel play" but seldom actually play with another person except maybe in highly structured and engineered activities controlled by another person. In our desire to intervene, to help, do we actually keep these kids separate from each other? Do we encourage these interactions/engineer interactions? In my room the answer would be "no" we don't encourage a lot of interaction between the kids. It's not intentional, but the kids usually each do their own things. Encouraging dual play with others needs to become a goal for us--put two kids in the toy tunnel together for instance, two on the swing set doing similar activities, two at the water tub doing tummy time, etc. Even when we play games we don't do enough give and take with the kids.

Another important area of social play is "rough and tumble" play. To a person my kids all love to rough house. "Tummy drum," "shake shake shake," and "wiggle jiggle" are all favorite activities that we don't do enough of. How do we stay safe but still encourage this type of physical play? Typical kids engage in rough and tumble play through sports, on the playground, wrestling with sibs, etc. How do we give our kids with severe disabilities similar experiences?

A third important area of social play is celebratory play. This is engaged in by every age group. We all have celebration rituals, cheer on our favorite team, clap in excitement, etc. How often do our kids with intensive needs not respond appropriately to these types of activities? They don't know what to do, how to respond, and sometimes they don't even recognize what all the fuss is about. How do we help them gain these understandings?

Imaginative and pretend play: is this developmental? Can our kids who are at younger "developmental ages" engage in pretend play? How do we help them? What should pretend play look like for a child who can't really manipulate objects (dolls, trucks)? Or who understands things in a very concrete way (expects food he can eat rather than play food that he "pretends" to eat)? What about older kids who seem "stuck" on baby dolls, Barbies, action figures? Should we discourage this kind of pretend play or encourage it? How do preteens, teens, and adults engage in pretend play activities? This is an area I've always wanted to do more with in my classroom. I had a very rich and engaging imaginative play "life" as a child and those skills have stretched into adulthood by allowing me to be creative and innovative. How do I give that gift to my students?

Storytelling and narrative play: well, books, TV shows, and movies are obvious sources of this type of play, at least receptively. How do we give kids with very complex communication needs the ability to TELL stories, especially when they don't have a good grasp of "language" as we typically view it? I have kids who actually speak a different language, one that is sensory based and doesn't translate well into English/talking. I have been known to crawl inside the toy tunnel beside a student, close my eyes and give her my hands so she could talk to me in her language about what she is experiencing. I need to do more of that "listening in their language" with all my students.

Transformative-Integrative and Creative play: using play as a medium to create new ideas, things, etc. How do we help these kids access this? They usually aren't "creators" so to speak. Music? Art? This is probably the least understood area of play so far. Maybe we already see it in our kids as they figure out how to work around an obstacle, accommodate a sensory or motor deficit, etc.

We hear constantly about "21st Century Skills." I got to thinking, could "play" be considered a "21st Century Skill?" The kinds of innovative thinking, problem solving ability, and creativy companies are looking for today all seem to be couched in the "play" philosophy. Schools are falling behind faster and faster. We should pay attention to the fact that kids come into kindergarten ready, willing, and eager to learn. But by the time they reach 2nd or 3rd grade, school has become more of a chore--kids can't wait to get to recess, PE, etc. Why? Is it because of "skill and drill" practices? Because they are forced to sit at their desk, raise their hands to respond, follow directions to the letter, do only as they are told? I was a good student but what kind of a learner could I have been if allowed to learn through play? What kind of a person would I be now? Would my social skills be better? Would I have better relationships with the people around me (something with which I struggle; I'm not exactly comfortable with nor skilled at forming new relationships; small talk? forget about it! Not my forte at all!)? I mean seriously, if dogs "get it" and polar bears "get it" then why can't people?

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