We often hear about PLAY like it belongs exclusively to young children. Yet through the years, we have witnessed the adoption of rigid emphasis of academic skills in many facets of a young child’s world. Society has defined and specified learning goals to basic skills like learning letters, colors, numbers and words. Even, computer literacy has become the pre-occupation of our young ones or their parents. Swiping and tapping away in each little world. Play has diminished, if not dead. I raise my bell in this article to rally back the original mode of learning.
Play is defined and has been defined differently through the century by many, but the essentials remain rooted in key characteristics. I shared these characteristics (remembering Johan Huzinga in 1938) during a recent press conference hosted by a popular biscuit company, they are as follows:
Play for myself, is a condition where learning flourish and become a medium of communication and expression. It provides essentiality for a child (adults included too) to be free and propensity to absorb experiences. While we cannot agree to a large extent on what is play, we can witness the spontaneity in a child’s play and the exuberant energy that can be channeled towards learning navigation.
In another interview with New Straits Time (Malaysia), I attempted to explain the concept of adventurous play – the implementation of play concepts through activities capsuled with a theme of adventure (remembering Parten in 1933), highlights are:
Adventure is not about going to a theme park or hitch-hiking through physical terrains. Adventure is the creation of learning in a story that our children’s mind can create. When created, it can only grow with potentials.
If you are convinced that play especially adventurous play is the best way for our children, the next few steps will allow ourselves as adult to be liberated back to our youth:
Let the child lead!
Join the children in what they are doing! Do not try and guide or direct; simply join in with what they are doing and follow their lead. Become an element in their play. By doing so, we know the child already finds this activity motivating, and feels safe because it is familiar, predicable and they are controlling it. Sometimes children will resist the intrusion into their ritualistic play. If this is the case, be a passive observer, simply watching with minimal interaction. Once the child can tolerate you in his space of play, then proceed to engage by describing what you see; label what he is doing, and anticipate what is happening. Do not ask questions, give directions, or try to vary what he is doing. Simply, watch and describe what you are experiencing.
Imitate, animate, and playfully intrude
Once the child is comfortable with you watching and describing, start to include yourself into the play. Begin by imitating what he is doing. “That looks like fun….let me try!” If the child is simply acting out, then imitate and copy his acting out (e.g. rocking, hand flapping, twirling string, etc.). If he is engaging in repetitive object play, then do the same right next to him (or better yet at a 45% angle so he can see you better). Imitate what he is doing, both actions and vocalizations. Many children on the spectrum are attracted to those who imitate them. You are valuing their world, and establishing a connection.
Once the child is comfortable with this, add in animated emotion sharing; “That’s cool!”, “We did it!”, “Awesome!” etc. Use animated facial expressions, exaggerated gestures, and excited vocalizations. Reach out your hand for a gentle “high five”. Again, do not question or direct, simply share in what he is doing. Many children on the spectrum are attracted to animation, as long as it is not directing them. This emotion sharing will become the glue that motivates further cooperative interaction.
Anticipate and comment on what they are doing, “Oh it looks like we are going to hit that tree with your car! Watch out tree!!!” Begin to apply meaning to all their actions and vocalizations. Each time the child makes a response, reply back by assigning meaning. Each time the child looks up at you, show animated emotion. Each time he says something, respond back (even if he didn’t mean to communicate).
Become a part of the play or adventure!
Next, slowly become an element in the child’s play. By becoming an element in the play you provide a playful intrusion. Now, instead of playing alongside of him, you are playing with him. Again try not to direct or control, just follow his lead. Frequently celebrate “doing together” with “give fives” and declarative statements “We rock!”, “Awesome!”, “We did it!” Keep assigning and describing meaning to what he is doing and saying.
Start adding simple variations
Start expanding on what he is doing. Take what he is doing, and add a little to it. If he is pushing his truck, put a barrier in front of it “Oh oh, looks like a tree fell in the way”, or “Watch out for the lady walking across the street”, as you include a lady to walk across the street. Slowly expand on his actions, as well as adding to the theme of what he is doing. If he resists you expanding on what he is doing, then start with imitating his actions, then expand on your actions. This is less threatening because you are not effecting his actions, only yours. Build in anticipations, “I wonder what would happen if _________.” Pause to give the child a chance to respond. If no response, simply do the action and comment on what happened, “Oh no, I am going to hit that tree!!”
Make sure to frequently “Celebrate!”
Frequently throughout the play, pause briefly to “celebrate” by giving five, with animated emotion. Have fun, and share the emotion. Try to stay in his field of vision so he can easily see your play and emotion sharing.
If he resists, back up a little and make it simpler
Each time you expand on what you do, if it is too big of change and the child resists, back up to where he last felt comfortable. Take it a little bit slower and make the change a little smaller to keep it safe. You want to slowly stretch his comfort zones, while keeping the interaction fun.
Once the child is engaging in “back and forth” cooperative play with you, you can gradually expand the complexity of play (object play, functional play, pretend play, etc.).
Remember, when encouraging cooperative play in a more adventurous theme (like acting as the garbage truck collecting all the toys on the floor), start off by allowing the child to lead, keep it safe and simple, respect his comfort zones, and build in frequent emotion sharing. Be patient! It may take time for the child to feel comfortable, but it is worth it in the end. To teach cooperative play, I recommend multiple sessions throughout the day; at least three to four times a day if possible.
Try it. Go and Play with your child. Stop worrying about the “real” world because what is real is your child and you.
Switch your adventurous play mode on now.
Prof. Dr. Eric Lim is the founder of Kits4Kids Foundation, a foundation that specializes in the education of special needs children. He also leads many international social enterprises around the world. A PhD in Educational Management, he also holds the Masters of Education and Bachelor of Special Education as well as Masters of Psychology, focusing on child psychology and counselling. Prof. Dr. Eric Lim is passionate towards helping as many people as he could in spreading the love for children and humanity.