Thursday, March 22, 2012

More Thoughts on Play

Anna immersed in play, at about age 2 1/2

"Moooom? I'm boooored!"

That phrase seems to be some sort of rite of passage, when it comes to both being a parent and being a kid. What parent hasn't heard her child say the words? What parent didn't utter the same words, eons ago?

Anna went through an "I'm bored" phase awhile back, which I viewed as close to ridiculous. The girl has tons of toys and trinkets and books and games and craft supplies oozing out of boxes and bins all over the house. She also has an incredible imagination. After awhile I'd get fed up and tell her, "You're staying out of the kitchen (these issues always seemed to come up around dinnertime) for a half-hour, and you're going to come up with something to do."

After about five minutes of obligatory whining, suddenly it would grow very quiet, and I'd know: Anna was creating. Sure enough, within another few minutes she'd come scampering to the doorway with some sort of house for her My Little Ponies she'd fashioned, or be concocting some kind of food for her stuffed animals using beads and sparkles, or gathering supplies for a camping expedition to take place under blanket tents. (As I write this, incidentally, she is building homes for her Lalaloopsy dolls out of cardboard boxes.)

I always knew Anna could play, she just needed to put some effort into getting started when she was feeling lazy.

I don't think we realize how much goes in to play. I know there are things I never considered until the last few years. Play is more than just coming up with an idea. It's also knowing how to execute the idea. It's breaking the idea into very small parts and carrying them out successfully, in the proper order. Apparently the fancy words to describe this in the developmental pediatrics world would be "motor planning" and "sequencing."

If I insisted Ethan play on his own for 30 minutes (with no electronic devices or puzzles!), this is what might happen. He would first have to come up with an idea. This sometimes does not come easily. But even if he did come up with an idea, to truly play, he would need to add to the idea, to expand the idea. There are various reasons why kids on the spectrum do things like pick up toys and simply drop them or throw them or spin them. This play thing is not as easy as it sounds.

I witnessed this all play out (no pun intended) this afternoon. Since the weather was unseasonably warm water play seemed like a good option. I filled up a bucket for Ethan on the back deck along with various other small bowls, water cans, squirt guns, spray bottles and more and told him to go for it. This is what I saw:

He tried to pick up the huge heavy bucket to dump water into smaller items before realizing he could fill the smaller items with water from the big bucket.

He attempted to squirt the squirt bottle but had it the wrong way and wasn't grasping it right, so he couldn't get it to shoot out any water.

After I gave him a plastic slide from an old bath toy and some toy people to see if he wanted to play "waterslide" (we just got back from a trip to an indoor waterpark), he lay the slide flat on the deck, not knowing how to balance it on anything to tilt it into a position in which a toy person could race down it.

When trying to fill up small cups of water in the small bucket, he didn't realize the best way was to tilt each slightly to the side. Instead he put them in straight down, and didn't push them far enough down for much water to flow over the sides and into the cup. This meant every time he attempted this, he got just a few drops of water in his cup.

He then moved over to the sandbox to make sandcastles. Only he kept forgetting to fill up the bucket all the way or to really pound down the sand, so his castles kept collapsing into chaos as soon as he'd turn over the bucket.

How can I blame the boy for finding solace in buttons and switches? Just writing this makes my head ache. Yet these are exactly the types of challenges many kids with special needs have when they are asked to "go play." I imagine it would be like someone telling me to assemble a chair with no directions. To say I'm not handy is an extreme understatement. I'd first stare at all the pieces and wonder what to do with them. Once I finally figured out a piece or two that went together I'd fumble around with the screwdriver and undoubtedly strip a screw...or get a few parts slip-shoddingly together only to see them fall apart with the slightest bit of pressure. I certainly wouldn't find the whole experience to be very fun.

I'm no expert, but something in me tells me we're going about things the wrong way when we try to "teach" kids play. Ethan's teachers talk a lot about modeling play schemes. They put the cow in the toy barn and have it say moo. Then they hope Ethan will copy and do the same. Okay, he can handle that. But where does that get him when no one is around? He's not generating ideas. He's not problem-solving. He's simply imitating.

That's like someone standing with me while I'm assembling the chair, telling me exactly what to do and how to do it. I might actually put the thing together, but would I know how to put it together? Would I be able to do it on my own, or assemble a different object other than a chair? To me it would seem more worthwhile to first be sure I knew how to properly use the hammer, the screwdriver, the drill. To review how the pieces work and fit together. To understand the why and not just the what. And then with time and practice, I'd begin to understand how to assemble it on my own.

This is why I don't care for teachers exclusively grasping at any old typical four-year-old play skill and offering it up for Ethan to imitate, because he's smart and catches on quickly and because this will help him to fit in socially. We must also be sure to go back and work on those skills that he skipped over or never refined -- skills like exploring...manipulating... testing...discovering...trying and failing and trying again a different way: even if that means dumping water and digging in sand like a two-year-old, when the other four-year-olds are playing superheroes.

I guess that's what home is all about. That's why we're here. Which is why Ethan ended his play today blissfully happy, covered with sand and water, brushing off his hands with satisfaction after finally crafting a sand castle that no one had built for him first.

1 comment:

Crystal Senzig said...

Yep. Totally. This is where we are, too. Ryan is amazing when you hand him the iPad, or when he has his drumsticks (you should hear that kid... he can play several different kinds of rolls and rudiments) but give him blocks, and he makes one very tall tower, and that's because he was taught to do that. It was an objective, and he learned it well. Another one of those things that's hard to explain... we have to teach them to play. Loved this!