Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Play that Encourages Reciprocal Interaction, Imitation Skills, Communication and Initiation

As a continuation of last week’s post about the rug play center, I want to take some time to share another version of rug play.  This version was actually created after our morning class grew in size from 6 students to 9 students.

As you can image, with the intensity of needs we serve, this put a little wrench in things.  However like I always say with new students comes the opportunity for my staff and I to learn something new. 

With our growing classroom, we had to come up with a way for all the students to have one on one direct instruction time and be in groups no larger than three kids at a time.  Sounds simple right?  Well as many of you have experienced some students have more significant needs and need to be one on one with a staff person or in a smaller group of two to make gains.  As their attention to task and learning to learn skills are not at a level for them to be grouped into a larger group of three or four. 

So in came Miss Denise and Miss Mary.  Denise was a practicum student from the local college and Mary is a past parent who volunteers in the classroom.  They are also known as the Buddy Bear lifesavers!  We organized their schedules so that we had one of them each day during learning rotations making for five adults on deck to support learning skills during our 100 minute learning rotation.

Originally, I simply added them to a group of three in which one student needed more one on one time and the other two worked nicely with the other adult. That worked for less than a day!  The students were too distracted by one another and the instruction of two adults in a center. 

Time for a revamp!  Through some thinking on my own and some brainstorming with my amazing staff, we came up with 2 more centers. Making a total of 10 centers.  We use to have 8 centers each 12 to 13 minutes to account for 100 minutes, but with 10 centers we simply rotated every 10 minutes. Which was perfect for our new little learners.  Remember last week how I mentioned that we want to keep students at a center for the amount of time they can engage and attend.  Well, 10 minutes was our max!

So in came a free play art center (where the students had the opportunity to use the skills they had been learning all year at structured art to color, draw, cut, glue, tear, and paint) and another rug play center with a whole new purpose. 

As we brainstormed, about the needs of our morning class, we realized that the original rug play was just not enough.  They still needed a lot of support to engage and participate in the center and on top of that the new students needed a way to build connections with the staff and their peers. 

So an interactive rug play center was born, where the adult was extra encouraging through playful interactions, presence, eye contact and touch, as suggested by the work of Dr. BeckyBailey and Conscious Discipline.  She encouraged, and engaged the students in a series of one to four activities, using this visual system. 


At the beginning of each week, I programmed hands on playful games into four separate fabric bags (each one a different color).  Then Miss Penny our lovely play based para expert simply chose which bags to work on with which students. Some groups would go through all four activities were others would do one or two bags because their interest level could attend to a play activity for a longer amount of time. 
To make the visual schedule accurate, she would simple use a dry erase maker to mark off bags they were not doing for the day. 


So what’s in the bags?  Basically, each activity is something that is visually structured, has communication supports and needs more than one play partner to be fun.  Here is one week's worth of examples to give you the idea:
Example One: From the green bag, Puppet Play- We put several puppets into a bag.  The kids take turns taking one out of the bag or requesting it with their words or by communicating with the aided language board below. 


Note: They can work on greetings with hi, and bye or other social interactions such as high-fives, handshakes and hugs.  Miss Penny can also add in I Love You Rituals and other familiar songs with the puppets to keep the kids engaged and incorporate playful interactions that encourage reciprocal play, language and imitation skills.
Example Two: From the red bag, Nesting Blocks- Miss Penny helps the students use their problem solving skills as they stack the blocks.  Then they work on waiting and impulse control as they count, and clap, jump, or high five to a certain number before knocking them down. 

Note:  We use a visual system to support the waiting process.  There are four steps...

build the blocks,

knock them down,
and celebrate!  

The four visuals are glued together and laminated.  Then they can be folded so we can focus on one visual at a time or show the whole process.  You can access this visual as well as other ones discussed in this post by going to Boardmaker Achieve or by sending me an email. 

Example Three:  From the yellow bag, What’s in the box?- This is a fun guessing game I got at a Patti King DeBaun training.  You simply hide one item in the box and have the students guess from two or three choices what they think it is.  After you sing, What’s in the Box? to the tune Frere Jacques.


Note: We put lots of playful and motivating items in our box to keep students interest and enthusiasm. 


Also there is a Velcro strip on the outside for the guesses to choose from and a yes and no icon Velcroed on the inside of the lid for students to respond if they guessed right or wrong.  When students are ready for it, we have them wait to play with the items until they get the correct answer.  This works on memory recall, trust, object permanence and delayed gratification.   For example, if they guess wrong, we might say try again and close the box with them seeing that we put the same item back in.  You would be surprised how often they don’t guess right the second time around:(
outside of the box-guessing choices
                                                       Inside of the lid: yes and no answers
Example Four: From the blue bag, A Play Kit (My Favorite)- It is kind of on the same wavelength as example three only this time the students have to request items and use their words or an aided language board to say what they want to do with the item.   For example, using the aided language board, I could ask, "Do you want to blow bubbles or pop bubbles?" Or I could say, "I got a book, what should we do with it?"

The items we use are a book, cars and a little fabric road, maracas, mini blocks, and bubbles, some of which are accompanied by a visual system or communication board. 

Communication Board for Bubble Play
Stop and Go Visual for Maraca Play (Stop is on the backside)
                                                Sequential Visual for Mini Blocks

Fabric Road for Structured Car Play

*Note: A duplicate of this play kit was sent home with a few of our students over the summer to work on play skills and communication.  What a great home activity! 

So there you have it folks. . . four play bags for four fun and socially engaging activities.  Now for a few logistics:  First off where do we store the play bags when not in use.  Answer not in plan site of the students that sends the message that they are free rein.  They are stored in the storage cabinets in the back of the room. 

Secondly, where does the rug for this play go?  If you remember right this was an added center and if you remember from the classroom tour the whole classroom is used for something! So we had to get creative with the little space that was left! We actually used a 24 by30 inch carpet runner from Wal-Mart for this center. Miss Penny would simply roll it out first thing in the morning over the tile line up spots.  Then after centers it was rolled back up and stored under the storage cabinets. 

Lastly, one quick modification that was added, some of our students don’t have very strong core muscles and can’t sit criss-cross applesauce for very long so we accommodated their needs by adding two cube chairs and one turned into a table. 

*Cube Chairs are awesome for our population. 
You can get them through most school supply companies

Then a few of our students sat with one leg on either side of a bolster to work on strengthening their core either the whole time or part of the time. 

The key here is to really think about what the purpose of the center is.  Is it core and gross motor strengthening or is it play and interaction?  In this case it is play and interaction, so if working on strengthening a student’s core limits their ability to interact and focus then the core strengthening takes the back burner. 

Well, that is it for now!  Catch you later this week when I share my top 20 favorite preschool games that support play and interaction.   Best Wishes, Lindy

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Let's Play: Building Play Skills with Special Needs Children

I have always been a huge supporter of teaching children through play.  When I started my career back in Head Start many years ago, playtime was 45 to 60 minutes of our school day, much like it is in most preschool classrooms.  So naturally when I moved into my Early Childhood Special Education classroom, I thought I could do the same, but I was sadly mistaken.   The majority of the students in my special education classroom did not have the skills necessary to play.  That may seem silly to most of us, as play came so naturally when we were children ourselves, but children with a variety of social and communication deficits do not always pick up on the concept of play.

In reflecting on the phenomenon of play, one will find that it takes a great deal of abstract thought, and imitation skills to engage in functional play.  Both of which, are lacking with many of the students in special education preschool classrooms.  If asked to play, they will either stim on a toy that gives them visual feedback such as the propeller on a toy helicopter, or wheels on a match box car or they will engage in repetitive play that is self-soothing such as lining cars up in a specific order or scooping sand through a sifter over and over again. Yet others are at the exploration stage of exploring their environment to the fullest. . . dumping things out, roaming from center to center, or even exploring and messing with things are not toys at all.

So how do we build play skills and train success?   How else, through centers!!! In our classroom, we have three areas that support play and socialization.  One is the social center which was shared in a previous post and the other two are variations on rug play.

Area one is a traditional play area, where the students have free rein to play with a variety of toys on the shelf. 

This design is effective for our returning students and students with higher skills.  It is the area we will focus on today.  The main rule of the area is that the students need to play with the items from the shelf on the area rug directly below the shelf. 

For many years our rug was a multi-colored preschool circle rug with various shapes on it.  However this past year, I purchased a 6 by 9 foot solid colored area rug.  My personal preference is a solid colored area rugs without designs on it as the design can be highly distracting for kiddos and can be hard for kids with visual impairments to play and walk on. 

What makes the area successful for our students is our concept of less is more.  We only have four to eight different activities on the shelf for the kids to choose from and each activity is limited in the number of items it has especially at the beginning of the year.  For example we may have 20 wooden blocks out rather than the whole set of 80.

To support the students in requesting however I will Velcro an aided language icon on the shelf for students to ask for more if needed.   This supports our nonverbal kids in requesting and reminds all the kids that they have the option to request more. 
We also have all done-put in prompts on the insides of each toy tub.  This helps the kids remember to pick up their toys as they finish playing with them.  Remember a visual prompt is always easier to fade than a verbal one! 


One play expert aka, paraprofessional or classroom volunteer is assigned to this center to help facilitate, model and encourage active engagement with toys in the area.  Depending on student levels the kids are here for 10 to 15 minutes.  We never want them to be at a center too long.  We try to stretch their attention span over time but watch it closely because if they are there too long that is when problem behavior starts to occur.  The idea is to structure centers so that they are actively engaged for 10 to 15 minutes at each center and move onto the next activity before their ability to engage decreases.  The more actively engaged students are the less problem behavior will occur.!

NOTE: for students with little attention to task, we added in functional errands between centers or in the middle of centers.  For example, the students may go to the office to check our mailbox or return library books. I will share more about that in the future but for now I wanted to share my top 5 activities items for rug play.  Each one with its own modifications and visual supports.

1.      A Wood Train Set - modified with numbers and color coding so that it makes one complete track.  Remember less is more by having just the pieces needed to make a figure 8 track the kids and staff can put it together in a functional manner and then focus on pretend play with the train and people. 
Here is a closer look:  You can see the numbers on each track piece.  If you look really closely you will see there is a red permanent marker line online the side of the track that is a visual cue to show the kids that the red stop sign and the red roofed police station go by that track. 
              We have also taped an aided language board inside the lid of the box so we can support
              and facilitate language as the students request various pieces and track numbers. 

2.      Marble Works– modified with a letter matching system this set can be put together without extra pieces quickly and effectively so that the marbles run through without getting caught up.  This is one of our favorites for turn taking and playing with a group as the game is so fun it caters to the kids playing together.  Of course with some turn taking and sharing lessons from staff! 
       Here is a closer look at the letter matching system we use to support the students and staff in putting a functional marble game together.  Note:  this does limit the students creativity a bit but it helps them gain functional play skills.  We can always add the creativity piece back in after they get the concept of how to play with a specific toy.  Rather than spinning the wheel on the little yellow piece over and over again, they can watch their marbles go through the maze over and over again like the game is intended to play. 
      This game also has an aided language board taped to the inside of the box's lid so the students can request the letter pieces and marbles. 
TIP:  For kids that are at the early stages of play we have modified this game to be a task box with just a few pieces.  The kids can work on the skill of top to bottom and starting on the left and end on the right. I got the idea from Task Gallore: Let’s Play .  It is an excellent book for gathering play ideas!

3.      Duplo Legos- modified with step by step books to make lego creations.  Perfect for kids that work well using visual work systems.  They have a visual of what they are making and a step by step process of how to do so. 


              Remember less is more!  
So for some students we will just have the pieces for a particular build set out. 
for others we will have all the pieces that go with our Lego step by step builds
so they have to use their problem solving skills to find what they need. 
And again there is an aided language board taped on the inside of the box lid
 so the kids can request what they want to build. 

TIP: the Lego company also has a few step by step sets to build. 
For example the animal build and literacy sets
4.      Little People Sets- There are all sorts of sets everything from an airport, to a farm, zoo, fire station and house.  We even have some holiday sets that the kids enjoy.  We modify them by adding roads, templates and step by step story books to follow along and facilitate play. 

My favorite is this tablecloth template I made for our barn set and farm unit. 
The kids can work on prepositions as they put animals on the water, in the barn, beside the field, etc. and they can also work on motor skills as they plow the fields following the lines. 



5.     Numbered and Lettered Puzzles- modified with letters or numbers on the back to support the kids in putting them together correctly.  
For this activity we often use our number and letter paint sticks to help the kids find the next letter or number.  You can read more about these paint sticks in this previous post. 

I could go on and on with modified play tasks but the main idea is the more structure we can add to activities, the more we uncover the mystery of play for our kids.   You may have noticed that all of the modifications involved letters, numbers, and other pre-academic skills.  And that is no accident, it offers exposure for our students without overwhelming them and also caters to several of our students’ special interests in letters and numbers.  By including their special interests, we can support engagement as the students want to interact because it involves something they enjoy. 

We pull in other special interests whenever we can: cars, trucks, trains, dinosaurs, and animals have been some of the leading special interests over the years!  That being said however, because we are using special interests we have to have a way to set limits when center time is over and it is time to move on.  Especially since our rug play center duals as the large group area.  We do this by velcroing towels over the shelfs.  During centers the towels are rolled up on top of the shelf.  When center time is over the towels lay over the shelf. 

Now moving back to the topic of special interests, we do whatever it takes to build student play skills.  For example, this past year one of our students had very limited interest in play, to support her in being successful and help her engage longer than her baseline of 30 seconds, we incorporated her special interest of plastic baggies and her strongest skill of putting in.  She is a little rock star when it comes to put in tasks.  Early on it became her special interest as well as her strength so we used it to our advantage.  In the beginning, we had her do things like put animals ‘in’ the farm set, then we moved on to taking toys out of plastic baggies and giving them to the staff person to put together to make a train track, puzzle, etc. 

Note:  The plastic bags were only used in the presence of an adult and only for the first few weeks.  For whatever reason the student enjoyed the noise and feel of baggies, and with her limited ability and interest to touch things it helped us get past her tactile defensiveness.  She would touch anything once if it was coming out of a plastic bag.  Overtime she realized other things were not so bad to touch and we were able to move on to more functional play skills. 

At this point, some of you might be wondering, what is the point, it seems like a lot of effort to teach play skills why not just work on the pre-academics afterall that is what school is all about . . .

Well, in doing a little research about play you will find that play is the precursor for social and educational success.  You can learn more by accessing my presentation about play and the resources on the last slide of the presentation.  

Teaching play skills, also teaches children how to fill their downtime and what to do for fun and leisure.  Research shows that students with disabilities, especially those on the Autism spectrum are less likely to hold a job later in life.  Not because they can’t do the work but because they do not know what to do during their downtime.  They need support with social skills and how to interact with others in the workforce during breaks, and other social experiences.  Hence the need for teaching play skills at an early age that will lead them to appropriate leisure activities. 

Okay I will get off my soap box now, and say so long!  Come play with us next week as we dive into the rug play center for our beginning students.  Happy Play Time! -Lindy