How can adults support children's play?
Infants and toddlers need play interactions with adults to activate fully their urge to play. Young children delight in playful interactions such as a simple game with fingers and toes, playing peek-a-boo, or being tossed in the air. They also like to interact with everyday materials, such as wooden spoons, pots and pans, baskets and balls. They do not need fancy toys with bells and whistles, batteries, or computer chips. Generally speaking, simple toys and play materials lend themselves much more fully to open-ended, child-directed play than do defined toys. A rule of thumb is that a good toy is 90% child and only 10% toy.
High-tech tools like the new 7-inch Vinci computer advertised for children from birth to age 4 only give children a narrow spectrum of possibilities, since the child is dependent on the programs offered by adults. There is little scope for the children’s playful initiative or imagination. This problem was well captured in a cartoon showing two young girls with their dolls. The child with a high-tech doll said proudly, "My doll can say 500 words." "Oh," said the other with a simple doll, "mine can say whatever I want it to." That's play.
Today, more than in the past, it is common to see children who can't initiate their own play, and it is often necessary to help such children get started. As a preschool/kindergarten teacher, my approach was to take such a child by the hand and say, "Let's build a house now," house-building being a popular form of play with nearly all children. Using whatever materials were at hand, we'd slowly build an enclosure. By the time it was complete, the child frequently had an idea: "Let's make a zoo— or a rocket ship—or a farm." The possibilities were endless. Soon, their play urge was flowing, and I could safely withdraw. If I pulled back too soon, however, the child often lost interest in playing. If I stayed involved too long, I ran the risk of becoming a preferred playmate. The right moment to pull back varies from child to child, but trial and error is a great teacher.
Children with disabilities may need extra help in engaging in play, depending on the complexity of their situation. Play begins in the home, and the organization Lekotek helps families play with their children with disabilities. Lekotek also shows how to adapt toys to the needs of particular children and maintain toy lending libraries. (3).
A lovely blog about neighborhood play, called Playborhood, recently focused on an 11-year-old boy, Ben, who has cerebral palsy. From his wheelchair and with the aid of voice-activated buttons on its arm, he referees the neighborhood wiffle-ball games. He is a full member of the play community and gets criticized like any coach if the children disagree with his calls. He also participates in family bike outings with his wheelchair mounted on a platform in front of a bike that is pedaled by his siblings or parents. (4)
Christy Brown's book, My Left Foot, describes growing up with cerebral palsy in working-class Dublin. Brown includes hair-raising descriptions of how his siblings would fasten him into a wagon and run through the streets at full speed. He was a spirited boy and loved playing actively with his brothers. (5)
Inspired by Brown's memories of play, I decided to ask our cousin Andy about his play memories. Andy became very ill at age 1 and lost his ability to speak and to move deliberately. He communicates with facial expressions and by directing his eyes into "yes" and "no" positions. He is one of four children in a playful family, and now that he's in his early 30s, I wondered what he recalled about his childhood play.
I asked him a few questions that his mother wrote down so that he could later work on the answers with his aide. As soon as I was finished, Andy's eyes began flashing words to his mother. I couldn't imagine what had sparked such an immediate and passionate response. I soon found out. "Can the answers be X-rated?" he wanted to know. I cracked up and said they could be R-rated, but I was not interested in the X-rated material. He grinned, fully expecting that answer, and his mother responded that this is how Andy plays—in his mind and with words.
We should never assume that because a child or adult cannot easily communicate his play wishes that he or she does not have any. Penny Wilson, a British playworker who has devoted the past 25 years to supporting inclusive play, has spoken about inclusive play at workshops in the U.S. One of her stories is of a boy who could not speak or control his body. His playworkers wanted to give him a full chance to select his own play situations but were stumped as to how to read his play cues, those often subtle messages we convey to show what we want to play. One playworker noted that when the boy was excited about something, a specific muscle in his back tensed up. From then, on they'd offer him various play options while touching that muscle. They soon learned what he wanted to play.
Another example given by Penny was of a young boy with impaired vision. He wanted to ride a tricycle on the paths of the adventure playground with its uneven terrain, but he could not see the path. A playworker found a solution. She ran ahead of him, ringing a bell, and he followed the sound of the bell. Playworkers go to any length to support children in their play.
Supporting inclusive play between typically developing children and those with disabilities can be a particular challenge. Modeling inclusive play behavior by playing with children with disabilities, or translating their play wishes to children without disabilities, is a powerful tool. So is addressing the concerns or fears of typically developing children who are reluctant to play with children with disabilities. Regarding this problem, I spoke with Marnie Norris, director of programs at Shane's Inspiration in Los Angeles. (6)
Shane's Inspiration is a national organization that has helped hundreds of communities build inclusive playgrounds. But it realized that a playground alone did not guarantee inclusive play. In response, it created social inclusion programs that nurtured compassion through play. The organization has brought the program to hundreds of schools.
A Shane’s Inspiration program includes a session with typically developing children about their feelings about playing with children with disabilities. They frequently express discomfort over how to approach a child with a disability, concern that some children might be out-of-control and dangerous, or fear that the disability itself might be contagious.
A second part of the program has the children going out onto the playground, where two children without disabilities are paired with a child with disabilities. Marnie helps ease the way, going from group to group, introducing herself to each child and the children to each other. The playground has been arranged with a number of stations. At some, there are scarves for dressing up, or there may be bubble-making materials, building equipment, sand, water, etc. Soon the children are hard at play.
Later, when the typically developing children are again asked about disabilities, their attitudes have changed dramatically. They have generally become enthusiastic about inclusive play.
As a next step, Shane's Inspiration is hoping to offer professional development courses on methods such as these for supporting inclusive play.
A different approach in West Virginia encourages inclusive play in a camp setting for families with children with disabilities. Ingrid Kanics, a consultant on inclusive play and design, has worked at Camp Gizmo for the past 12 years. Inclusive play becomes part of a rich tapestry of life experience as siblings, staff children, and children with disabilities connect and play all through the week. Ingrid is the founder of the Play for Life symposium, an annual conference that addresses inclusive play for all ages. (7)
In some situations, children are severely play-deprived and serious intervention by adults is needed if they are to rediscover play. An example of such a situation is described by
Fraser Brown, who teaches about play and playwork at Leeds Metropolitan University in England. He engaged in action research in Romania, where abandoned children were being raised in a hospital. The children were tied to their beds, an act he described as abusive. (8)
He could not change the practice, but he did receive permission to establish a play room in the hospital where the children could play for a period each day. A young Romanian woman had taken his courses in playwork and she was joined by a British playworker. Every day, groups of children were freed from their beds and brought into the playroom. At first they had no idea what to do and showed few signs of playfulness, but after a month, they had become active players. At the end of each play session, they were put back into their beds and harnessed down again. The playworkers could not influence that, but they could restore children's urge to play and give it time to ripen.
All of us who care for children want to do more than that, but sometimes, life does not allow us to correct underlying problems—to lift a child out of poverty or remove a disability—but it always allows us to do something to help. We can lift the child's load a bit and make life much more bearable. And often the best way we can do this is to support the child's own play, for in play, children address all the situations in their lives and find solutions for them. What can be better than to make sure every child has developed his or her own ability to play?