I saw a child at the park the other day. She was walking around tapping swings and tossing wood chips onto the slides. At times, she attempted to climb onto swings but was unable to do so, sometimes crying out in frustration. While I don’t know anything about this child or her abilities (maybe she is neurotypical and was just having a bad day), I was reminded of how a child with Autism, or other differences, might experience a playground. I imagined she was thinking things like: What do I do with the equipment? Hmmm…what happens if I just tap on this? Oh, it shook around and made a funny noise! That was cool! Or, I have an idea for what I’d like to do, but I can’t make my body do it! How can I communicate that I need help? I know! I’ll tap on it or cry out and see if someone can get me on this thing.
In moments like these, we need to tune into the child’s differences and play with the child in a way that supports and honors those differences. This is where Floortime techniques come into play. One of which is following the child’s lead and joining in with whatever she is doing. For instance, if a child walks up to a swing and begins tapping it, you could pop over to the other side of the swing and tap along, turning it into a playful game. Or, you could toss wood chips onto the swing or the slide with her. If no one is getting hurt and you sweep the mess back onto the ground before another child swings or goes down the slide, what’s the harm? By doing so, you create the potential to foster a positive and playful interaction between you and the child.
Granted, these suggestions are coming from someone who often feels like she violates “playground culture” but if it gets a child engaged, who cares! After all, that is the goal: engage children in playful ways that enhance our relationships with them and therefore, provide a better vehicle for developmental growth.
Further, when you follow the child’s lead you help the child feel validated (“I do have good ideas! And they are worth playing!), support the child’s differences, make yourself available for interaction, and improve your relationship with the child, one playful moment at a time. These things are so much more important to following playground culture.
So, the next time your child interacts with play materials or equipment in a way an unusual way, don’t direct the child to do it differently. Instead, imitate what the child is doing and join in with the child’s idea! Do this as much as you can and see where it takes you and your child.