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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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Patience required

I AM a housewife, and I live with my mum and several family members. I have two boys, aged 10 and five. My husband spoils my eldest son by giving in to his every whim. He used to be a very good, obedient and lovable boy until he turned four. Then he became naughty.

When he was about seven, he became very rude and difficult. We scolded him whenever he did something wrong. He would take it out on his grandma and me. He likes to fight with his brother. My husband takes his side and hardly reprimands him for his wrongdoings.

My husband has a terrible temper. We do not get along, and hardly agree on the same things. I find him illogical. He believes in what his mother taught him, that is, to let kids do what they want and give them what they want.

When my husband sees my mother and me scolding my eldest son and smacking him, he takes pity on the boy. He is also prejudiced. He scolds my younger son when he is naughty, but not the older one.

My mother and I feel that as a father, he is too lenient with our eldest son. My husband becomes angry with us after scolding the kids. He picks fights with me. I have told him never to fight in front of the children, but he still does.

When my husband scolds my son, he uses very harsh words and does not explain the wrong my son has committeed.

My son is a smart boy. He was the top student, from Year One to Three. The teachers say he’s cheerful and intelligent. Lately, he ismischievous in school. His grades have dropped and he has become lazy.

My son likes to drag his feet when it comes to completing homework. Recently, he failed one of the tests and was caned by his teacher. After that, he did not want to go to school. He said he hates school and complained that he was having problems with his friends. We scolded him for not going to school and punished him, but he still refused to go. He insisted on changing schools. His behaviour has changed. He cries easily and has become very demanding.

My husband and I will be moving to our own place next month. We will transfer our son to a school near our new home but we are afraid that he might not want to go to the school.

Distraught Mother

Building a positive parent-child relationship requires a great deal of patience and understanding. When parents constantly find fault with their children’s behaviour and keep correcting them, they may make their children feel rejected and unloved. Punishment and scoldings will further discourage them from working on their ability to function effectively.

A child’s behaviour worsens when his needs are not met or when he is facing difficult challenges. In your son’s case, there is a lot in the home front for him to cope with. He has to deal with conflicting parents, as well as a non-supportive extended family.

Your 10-year-old son probably feels despair when family disputes that centre around him occur daily at home.

If you want to help change your son’s attitude and build his confidence, you must first start with yourself and your relationship with your husband.

Consider your concerns and attitude towards your son first, before you respond to his behaviour. In many cases, a parent who is overly-concerned about a child’s performance can cause him to have difficulties at school. Your reprimands and punishment accentuate the problem, rather than correct it.

Work out your differences with your spouse without involving your children. Even if you disagree on many things, you must show respect when dealing with your children’s well-being.

Young children have a strong need to be proud of their parents. They feel hurt when their parents say unpleasant things about one another. For successful parenting, work on family integration rather than promote competition.

A child’s behaviour is influenced by that of others. Parents are not the only ones who should be responsible for their children’s behaviour. When there is a problem in the family, it should not only be the mother or father who has to deal with it. Children should also learn to be responsible and help out in the family.

The whole family, including the child himself, needs to help solve the problem. When faced with a problem, get the whole family to sit down together to discuss possible solutions.

Every member has an opportunity to put forward his or her ideas and be heard. This way, you can reach out to your son, without frustration and anger.

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The right approach

ALL parents want to raise children with character. The last thing we want is to raise a child who has a negative attitude and bad habits. To cultivate good behaviour in children, parents must pay attention to their daily interactions.

Children do precisely what is expected of them. But this requires consistent teaching on the adult’s part. If they are expected to be polite at mealtimes, they need to be reminded at all times of their behaviour.

In many families, children are allowed to run around during mealtimes. It will thus be difficult to get them to sit still when there are guests for dinner. Children may find it difficult to keep up with the demands adults make on them. Unwittingly, we might be raising children to be inconsistent in their behaviour, if we are not consistent in our teachings.

Some children pick up certain behavioural patterns very quickly.

They know that if they were to scream or shout loud or long enough, their parents will give in. By doing so, the parent is encouraging her child to use this tactic to gain attention and get what she wants.

Parenting experts find that consistent teachings and realistic expectations of children’s behaviour can help.

Children like the idea that they can succeed in meeting their parents’ expectations and feel they are part of the team.

Parents must first identify the cause of children’s misbehaviour, so that they can apply various techniques of coping with negative behaviour and reinforcing positive behaviour.

Here are some everyday situations that parents may encounter with their young children:

1. It is seven in the morning and you want to hit the road for work. Your four-year-old son refuses to get dressed as told; he expects you to coax him and play games with him. He runs off for you to catch him. Instead of chasing after him, you should remain where you are and wait for him to turn back and look at you. Tell him that you are going to get ready while waiting for him. When he is ready to get dressed, he can seek your assistance.

2. Your child is upset that you said “No” to his request for ice cream before dinner. You do not have to explain at length the reason why he cannot have ice cream before dinner. You can remind him that he can request for ice cream after dinner. Keep your word when your child remembers your rules.

3. When your children refuse to pick up their toys or belongings, you can pick them up but put the toys away where your children are unlikely to find them. Next time when they look for them, you may want to remind them that they should keep their own toys to avoid losing them. With older children, discuss ways they can be responsible for their own things. For example, if they lose their pencil case, they may have to use their allowance to buy a new one. As much as possible, let your children take ownership of their belongings. They can earn their allowance by doing chores.

4. Parents tend to find too many faults with their young children. Consider each situation carefully before intervening. If your child is trying hard to do something on his own, allow him time to finish first before stepping in to offer help. Use positive words to encourage him instead of put-downs. Tell your child “I understand how you feel.” Or “You have worked at the task. I am sure with more practice, you will be able to complete it all by yourself.”

5. Consider your demands carefully before conveying them to your children. Are they reasonable or would it be too difficult for him to carry out? Children of different ages respond according to their maturity and level of understanding. Young children are more willing to work when they encounter success. Tasks that are too challenging can put them off and cause them to feel frustrated. They may require time to practise before they are good at a task.

Children learn better when parents can help them identify the problems they are facing.

Instead of punishment and rewards, parents can sit down with their children to learn ways to control their anger, and teach them how to handle success and failures. There is no better time to pick up these tools than when they are young. Once they have mastered them, they can take responsibility for their actions and make their own decisions.

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