Being the mother of three children has given me plenty of experience in observing children play, and in playing with them. Although these days, I put my hands up; when they were very tiny I was fascinated by their development, and participating in that, but as they have grown older I have become less keen. My domestic responsibilities have grown, as they have (have you considered how much they eat? Or how much mess they make?), and I have returned to the workplace (so now work and home feel awfully, awfully similar), both factor leaving me with less time to play, and considerably more grumpiness.
It is, true to form, my son Sam, and the differences between him and his genetically ordinary siblings, who has given me the greatest of insights into children’s play, and how we adults can aid learning through it. Take standing and walking, for example. When I came into contact with Portage I took their principles to heart. Play was the engine by which I could help Sam to discover key skills, so when we wanted to get him on the move, play with him we did.
In common with many children with Down Syndrome, Sam was born with very low muscle tone. In fact, his rag-doll demeanour was the first thing that alerted midwives to the possibility if his diagnosis. Now, low muscle tone has some significant consequences, the least of which was that we never had to put a cover on the video player (yes, we are that old) because his fingers were so soft that he could never move the cover, let alone post a sandwich in the slot, the greatest of which being that coordinated movement was (and is) hard; skills like rolling over, sitting up, crawling, walking, running and jumping had to be taught, and worked at.
I got on very well with the paediatric physiotherapist. I saw her, perhaps once every other week or so, at a therapeutic playgroup Sam and I attended. She showed me through the physical stages of rolling, sitting and crawling, demonstrated how to hold him so that his core muscles were strengthened, taught me some fun songs to sing and play with him. Getting him to roll over was no problem; he was delighted. Sitting, also; playing with his little box of toys was so much easier. But crawling. Crawling was another matter.
Sam just couldn’t see the point in crawling. Why should he, when mummy and daddy would fetch him the toys he wanted? And even when we didn’t, even when we moved his toys just out of reach, he was more than happy to sit and clap his hands together, flap his arms and sing away to himself. I used to put him in a crawling position on his tummy, apply pressure to one foot and nothing. Not a single movement, not a budge, by accident or design. No, for the skill of crawling we had to employ subterfuge.
It was obvious from an early age that Sam loved balls. He loved it when we sat opposite each other and rolled one between us. But one day, the ball rolled away and Mummy was busy doing something else (probably). Sam had no choice but to follow, if he wanted it back. He did. He inched his way across that floor and wedged himself under a table in pursuit of his prize. We were delighted. And I was intrigued.
I could set Sam up as best I could for learning new stuff, but when it came down to it, without his investment, without his cooperation, I may as well have been painting the sky pink. So, we never had any of the contraptions available to get Sam standing, or cruising, or tottering around the house. We just made it into a game. He loves cars. We got him a garage tough enough for him to lean on when he was standing to post the cars down the helter skelter. We bought him one of those red and yellow cars that he had to negotiate his was in and out of if he wanted to play in it. A toy push chair with a car in it got him toddling around the house.
Watching Sam play, and develop in this way also gave me the idea of the Interconnectedness of Things. We didn’t have times in the day when we ‘did some Portage’. The key skills we were developing were interwoven into what he ordinarily did. My mum, the Queen of Play, calls it something like taking where they are, and extending them just that little bit further. Not too far, or the step required is just too big, but just far enough to push those muscles, get that brain thinking.
As a teacher I might call this ‘pitch’. Make no mistake, I get it wrong all the time, both at home and in the classroom. I’m not the sort of person who learns in small, incremental steps. I tend to take big leaps, bouncing over several ideas at once. This tendency leads me to slip up many, many times. I have had to go home and re-think my lessons because I didn’t quite know the children well enough to start my lessons from where they were. But when you pitch it right, when you know those children, that child, well enough to know who they are, what they enjoy doing, that magical ingredient, motivation, comes into play. Something amazing happens. They learn.
This post was inspired by http://www.thefuturesrosie.com/2014/02/learning-to-walk-and-fork.html
I would also like to credit the late, great Iain M Banks for the title of this post.