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Needing play

A parent of a child with special needs shares her thoughts on the importance of play.

FOR PARENTS of special needs children, play is a word that is not in our dictionary. To us, free playtime that is unstructured and child-centred, where the child is in control and sets the tone and pace of the activity, has no place in our lives.

Having a child that is constantly way behind the standard developmental milestones, from sitting to walking, talking and writing, I feel I am constantly in a race. A race to get him onto the graph line of that developmental chart.

For parents of developmentally delayed children, that goal is like a lifeline thrown to us as we drift in the uncharted waters of raising a child with learning disability.

Often we feel that if we could only get our child to achieve those parameters, those milestones to assure us that he is growing up normally, then our lives would be normal again.

But more often than not, teaching a special needs child is like going on a rollercoaster ride, with no finishing line in sight. Each step forward seems to come after two steps backwards.

So really, we have no time to allow our children to indulge in free play. Every activity must be structured with an educational slant. Every task he performs must be analysed for its potential learning benefits. And we measure each toy we put into his hands by these standards.

I suppose it is a parenting instinct that when choosing toys for our kids, we often look at the educational value first, before we consider its potential for developing their creativity or imagination.

However, with our special needs child, this urge to promote education and development is so much stronger, causing us to focus on toys for building motor skills, hand-eye coordination or activities to develop his reading, writing and counting abilities.

I have to admit that I was not like that with my other boy, without special needs. He had the benefit of attending playgroups. He indulged in role-playing games. He made all sorts of weird animals from home-cooked playdough. He played ball games. He reared hamsters. He played alone, and with lots of friends. He enjoyed hours of sheer fun.

Looking back now, I realised he had more playtime compared to his special needs brother.

Was it just me, or are all mothers with special needs children just like me?

I didn’t put him into his brother’s mainstream kindergarten which was just down the road from our house. He attended a centre that caters to special needs children.

His toys were mainly puzzles, that he was coaxed to do over and over again, from puzzles with big knobs specially built for little fingers, to two-piece puzzles to 35-piece puzzle sets.

He had a teddy bear-shaped cassette player that was only used to play educational songs. He grew up on flashcards and counting boards.

And when it comes to sports, his swimming sessions were very specific. The objective was to teach him to coordinate left-right leg motions. And that was followed, of course, by left-right hand motions. The fundamental aim of just swimming for the fun of it was lost.

Perhaps that was why he never took to swimming. Because it was really just an exercise and not much fun at all. In my desire to make him achieve those developmental milestones, I had forgotten the true essence of play.

Play in its truest form is just about having fun. The child is usually involved in an enjoyable activity that is often spontaneous yet stimulating.

I recently watched some special kids “dressing up”. With just pieces of colourful fabric, they became pirates, lions, bride, mummy and some cartoon characters. It was fascinating watching them take on their latest interest and stamping their personality on their creation. It was truly role-play from the heart.

Free play can also stimulate curiosity but with our special needs children, it may come with a price. In many cases, the object of their interest is taken apart, sometimes beyond repair.

My son, for instance, is fascinated by anything that twirls and turns. He is fascinated by propellers, by fans.

But buy a helicopter for him and it gets destroyed. He doesn't play with it like his brother would; instead he would hold on to the blades or take it apart to find out why and how it spins.

So helicopters and all mechanical toys that spin were taken off his toy list. And, of course, all the fans in the house had been given his special treatment.

Perhaps if we had let him explore his curiosity in a different way, he would have learnt from it.

But, there I go again, putting a learning tag on any activity that I plan for him.

Again it stems from a fear that if I don’t focus on his self-development, he may never learn enough, in time.

And quite often, parents whose special needs child has extreme behaviours are doubly anxious about early intervention and structured learning sessions.

However, such denial of their need for free playtime stifles their creativity and retards their emotional health.

This is especially true for individuals who have problems expressing their emotions vocally.

Individuals with learning disabilities often have the same emotional needs. They get angry, sad and frustrated just like anyone else. However, they often have problems expressing these negative emotions constructively.

Instead they end up being aggressive, lashing out at others or, more often, inflicting injuries on themselves.

A play therapist once said she sometimes measured the effectiveness of her session with emotionally disturbed children by the number of toys destroyed during the session.

She commented that bashing up toys is a therapeutic session for children who are unable to vocalise their frustrations. Getting them to release these pent-up negative emotions is often the first step, and paves the way towards emotional healing and successful counselling.

Play therapists define play as “a physical or mental leisure activity that is undertaken purely for enjoyment or amusement and has no other objective.”

Frankly, I now feel that we all need to learn to play, that play is not just for children but for everyone, including adults. Unfortunately for various reasons, adults have forgotten how to play, so how can we teach our children to let go, be spontaneous and just play?


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