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All learners can shine through play

I am thrilled to share the following guest post by Pia Prenevost!  In her blog The Crack and the Light, Pia shares her journey raising her son Jonathan who struggles with a severe speech/language disorder.

Teaching J-man To Play

Adorable. That defines my son J-man, with big blue eyes and those lashes that cosmetic companies would kill to be able to produce. He has an easygoing personality and is remarkably bright, especially when you consider that J-man has a severe speech/language delay. He is 3 ½ years old, and his language tests at about 16-18 months old. We have had him in some type of early intervention/speech therapy since he was about 15 months old. His disabilities are unusual. He does not fit into a typical Autism Spectrum diagnosis, but his speech/language disorder is severe and has impacted his ability to both understand the world and to communicate with it.

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Early on in our journey, I learned about Stanley Greenspan’s DIR/Floortime model. The Floortime model advocates meeting the child where they are at developmentally and entering their world to play. This style of play allows the building of relationships to occur, thus furthering communication and interaction. For children with significant language issues, this relationship building is incredibly important. It is also remarkably difficult for a parent. Often, these children have their own agenda. Some children on ‘the spectrum’ are withdrawn from the world, exhibiting real difficulty engaging and interacting with others. Other children with language disorders, like my son Jonathan, may have real interest in interacting and playing with others, but do not have the language skills to do so. Many times they become disengaged from others simply because of the communication barriers in place.

Our approach to play with Jonathan has therefore been very focused on meeting him where he is at developmentally. Note, not chronologically….developmentally. It can be a struggle (especially for others) to recognize that although he looks like a three year old… and at times acts like a three year old… his language is not there yet. And his play behavior follows suit.

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J-man is also what I call an “extreme” visual-spatial learner and problem solver. He can do 40-50 piece interlocking puzzles. He amazed us last month with the recitation of his ABCs by identifying them on a piece of playground equipment without ever learning them from us (no doubt Sesame Street and Super Why helped). At 2 ½ years old and within one month, he went from having no words or signs to having over 40 signs, just from watching the newly acquired Signing Time videos. He constantly amazes us with his ability to learn an activity and tasks just from watching others do it, or purely through his own exploration.

Many of the toys and games we have provided J-man focus on capitalizing on these “hidden talents” while (hopefully) encouraging the acquisition of language. We have found that the most effective way to encourage learning and play is by letting him take the lead, and modeling in those moments little bits of language and communication. At times, this can be a struggle. J-man certainly prefers things to be his way. Indeed, we have often been mournfully aware that we are creating a little ‘prince’. He needs to feel successful and in control to be engaged and willing to learn, and I work hard to discover new toys and games to peek his interest. Hopefully, providing these new play opportunities will push J-man to use or try new language skills.

Some guidelines I try and live by:

1. Think outside “the box.” Recently I purchased the game Zingo! Zingo! is tagged ‘Bingo with a Zing’, and consists of a series of pieces with words/pictures and associated bingo cards. There is a plastic machine that allows you to distribute the tiles by sliding it back and forth.

Here is J-Man with Zingo! in action:

While this game is meant for older children, or children with significantly more sophisticated language skills than my boy, this game does have numerous features he loves. He loves the pieces, with the words and pictures on them. He loves matching them to the cards. He loved figuring out the machine and sliding it back and forth to get out the pieces. Each of these features capitalizes on his visual-spacial skills and his awesome problem solving abilities. However, I get to ‘backdoor’ in some language. He is exposed to words and picture associations. I label, label, label…each game tile, each action.

He engages with me, needing my help and assistance to get the game going. We practice turn-taking and following simple directions. And as he grows, this game will grow with him, as I find new and inventive ways to keep him engaged.  Thinking outside of the game or toy’s original intent, and using it in new and creative ways, is important. It is also important to allow the child to just explore the game and come up with their own “story.”

2. Respect where they are at and don’t expect more than that…Today. Many a time I have been sad or frustrated that J-man doesn’t play with toys the way he is ‘suppose’ to, or the his peers play with them. However, when I remember where he is at developmentally, I realize he really is doing exactly what he needs to be doing right now. If I expected J-man to have sophisticated imaginative play right now, I am not honoring his current language development. Indeed, his imaginative play is just now starting to emerge, and it is thrilling to see.

We have loaded the house with action figures (Buzz Lightyear and Woody, anyone?!?), trains, cars, dollhouses and dress up clothes, and he is embracing this play with gusto. But he needed to do it in his own time and in his own way. He loves puzzles, problem solving toys and games, and is very intent in figuring these things out by himself. If I interrupt his play with a new, interesting toy, I will invariably get the cold shoulder. I could worry… be concerned about his ability to engage in joint attention and reciprocal play. I am not. I know him, and I recognize his intense desire to work these problems out on his own. Once he has, there is room for me in his play. Sometimes I think that the intensity he needs to engage in that new, exciting, problem solving toy is at odds with the focus needed to include me and my language filled agenda in the action. So if I step back, allow him space and quiet, I can be part of the action without interrupting the flow.

3. The play is the thing! Shakespeare was right. In the end, it really isn’t about ‘teaching’ or ‘therapy’. While toys and games can be used therapeutically, that is not their purpose either. For us, it is about having fun. Without fun, no learning would ever really take place. Focus too much on the goal of learning, and not just enjoyment of life, and we lose him. However, get his spark through fun and play, and he learns in spite of us.

Raising a child with a disability is hard. It requires more energy and commitment than anybody can imagine. It is incredibly difficult to balance the intense desire to help your child, to give your child every opportunity, and the desire to just have a normal parenting life. I made the decision some time ago that I am J-man’s mommy first, everything else second. So I think about what will help him learn, what will further his ‘therapeutic goals’, but I don’t let it be the center of our universe. We are all happier as a result.

In addition to writing the blog The Crack and the Light, Pia Prenevost works as a NICU nurse, dabbles in writing, and is the completely smitten mother of the J-man.

The power of play to reveal and strengthen a child’s cognitive abilities is incredible… what have you learned about your child by watching him/her play?  What guidelines or tips have you discovered to help support his/her learning through play?  Please share!

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