Learning Through Play, What a Revolutionary Concept!

Last Wednesday was the last day I took Buddy to his old school. They told me it was no longer acceptable for him to come to school with his clothes on backwards. I also know they’ve been punishing him with time outs for toileting accidents, something that EVERY book on autism I’ve read has said not to do. Once that started happening I noticed a change in Buddy. He stopped wanting to go to school. I wonder if they got on to him for coming to school with his clothes on backwards because last Weds he was very withdrawn. But since he can’t talk to me all I have is speculation.

Thursday morning he was extremely reluctant to go to school. It’s usually not an issue. Unlike a lot of kids with autism, Buddy likes getting out of the house. I asked him if he wanted to go to school and he said “no.” In the past when I’ve asked he’d repeat, “school” which for him is a way of saying yes.

I took him to a playground instead. There were several other little boys Buddy’s age there, and he surprised me by joining in their game of Power Rangers. One of the mothers there had worked as a physical therapist at his old school and recognized him and she commented on what a good job he was going with the other boys. As we left I felt he benefited far more from those hours at the park than he would have at school. And that play? He wasn’t getting at school. But it’s the type of play he needs.

Friday I took the kids to visit my grandparents. And on Saturday when my parents came to visit, they found that Buddy had come out of the shell he had been in for the past few months, ever since they started the time outs at school.

Monday we started his new school. When I picked him up, he proudly showed me the truck he was playing with. His case manager said he’d done well and he won a game of musical chairs. Today when I went to pick him up I saw his therapist engaging him in a long, back and forth verbal sequence (five turns). This is something they were able to do in two days with him that his school was not able to do in five months of being with him! In fact, his school had no idea how to engage him. They asked me once, and when I told them (find what he is interested in, play with him, and gradually bring him into your world) they dismissed me as being permissive and went back to doing what doesn’t work.

And Buddy just seems happier now. And we’re seeing more engagement from him. While driving home today with Buddy and Sissy in the back seat we got stopped by a train. Buddy pointed at it and looked at Sissy and said, “Look, Sissy! A train!” I rarely hear him talk to her expect at night when he says, “Night night, Sissy, love you.”

At home we were watching “Mary Poppins” and when Mary Poppins did her long twirl during the “Step in Time” sequence he got excited. I started wondering out loud if any of us could twirl as long as she could and gave it a try. After I tried, Buddy tried. Here’s the thing, Buddy rarely imitates what he sees on tv. But as the show went on he started dancing more and imitating the movements. Later as I was doing dishes he started singing “Old MacDonald.”

I don’t think his new school has wrought a miracle so much as I think his old one was really stressing him out. And what I want to emphasize was that he was in pre-school. Pre-school was stressing him out. And further, is was inhabiting his growth when it should have been encouraging it.

And here’s the thing, it’s not just parents of children with autism experiencing this. Kids today are more anxious and at younger ages.Sensory processing disorders are on the rise. We have become so focused with academic success that we have set our expectations for our pre-schoolers way too high. Kids in pre-k are not wired to sit down for hours. They are not wired to know how to read or to do arithmetic. Our society got this insane notion that if we teach things to children at a younger age they will be smarter. But what happens is that we are teaching our children skills they are not developmentally ready for. Some children, boys especially, can’t learn to read before they are seven! But if you expect that child to learn to read at 4, well, of course they are going to get frustrated with school. When you expect a pre-school to sit still for hours, well, he’s going to get frustrated when he can’t do it.

And here’s where it ends up. Children’s mental hospitals. I did my practicum in one. I saw kids as young as four given ADHD medication so they could sit still for long periods of time. Here’s the thing, you give a kid who had ADHD medication, and he will calm down. If you give a kid who does not have ADHD medication, he will become irritable. When this happens, rather than saying the kid does not have ADHD, what tends to happen is it is viewed as that child has depression that the ADHD was masking, so they’re given an antidepressant. And then when the child has the symptoms from the depression medication, they’re given a third medicine. Some kids get up to 18 medications so they can sit still. At the age of four.

A disclaimer, I do not feel all medication is evil. While I was working there I also saw kids with schizophrenia. They definitely needed medication to be lucid at best, or to at least control their outbursts at worse (the prognosis for childhood schizophrenia is not good). However, for things like ADHD, I feel that medication should be used as a LAST resort when behavioral options have been tried and failed. But too often it’s used first.

Something else to point out, the children’s hospital I was in did not have a playground. I did not learn about sensory processing disorders until I had graduated, but looking back, I realize that a lot of those kids likely had undiagnosed SPDs and would have benefited more from physical therapy and play as opposed to Adderral and Abilify.

Which is all a long winded way of getting to my basic point, when the expectations we place on children are too high, normal behavior become pathologized. When a four year old is expected to sit still for hours, not being able to sets that four year old on the path to being labeled ADHD. When a five year old can’t read, she is set on the path of thinking she is too stupid to learn.When we stress the importance of achieving a high score on a test above all else, we set our kids up for anxiety disorders.

In the two days Buddy has been at this new school, I have already seen good progress. He spends his days learning through play. On the note they send home they have play activity after play activity they have engaged him in. At his old school they did a lot of work sheets and art projects, both of which are not age appropriate for a pre-school. My son has made more progress with play activities than he has with five months of work sheets. And it frustrates me to no end that we have someone gotten so obsessed with academic achievement that the idea of children learning through play is revolutionary, and finding places that provide it are so exceedingly difficult.

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