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Learning to Play
by Carol Castellano
Reprinted from In Touch, the newsletter of Parents of Blind Children-NJ

Most parents know that children are supposed to play and that somehow as they play, development will take place. But many of us have concerns about our child's ability to play and would welcome positive guidance on the subject. Dr. Lorraine McCune, Director of the Infant/Early Childhood Interdisciplinary Studies Program at Rutgers University, and Maureen Saar, Infant Service Counselor for the NJ Commission for the Blind, joined us in September for an evening of discussion on the subject of play.

What is play? According to Dr. McCune, play is what a child chooses to do and does in a happy way. Play awakens curiosity which leads to an urge to explore the world. During play, the child controls the activity and has a sense of security because he/she knows what to do. A child's play involves repetition or practicing what is already known. When the child has learned all that he/she can at a certain level of play, he/she will move on to the next level. The child's inner striving for growth and an inner urge to challenge him/herself causes development to occur.

Sometimes, however, the inner drive toward development gets "stuck." Some children with disabilities may not come up with everything they need on their own to keep moving along. Parents then need to figure out where the disability might be interfering with development and to help such children find more than they would on their own.

Dr. McCune has some suggestions for parents who want to help a child who is "stuck":

• Try to connect with the child's natural striving for development. We can join the child at the child's level of play and offer toys and other objects and opportunities for interaction with us.

• Let the play be child-directed. We can suggest and model activities, but the child must be free to respond in his/her own way. The goal is to help the child's inner striving for development work better, so we should find out the level where the child is comfortable and follow the child's responses.

• Make small moves and gently keep trying different things until the child is interested. The child will either accept our offers or not. Where the child will reach out is the important thing. If the child shows no interest in a certain object or kind of play, that means we haven't found the right object or kind of play yet!

• Watch the child's reaction to our offers. If he/she cries or becomes frustrated, we haven't found the right toy or activity. The child must feel good about the play, must feel successful and in control. He/she needs to feel secure about knowing how to handle what is going on. If the challenge we present is too great, the child will react with tears, frustration, boredom, or other signals. Respect this! It's not play if it's not being enjoyed! We can't make children enjoy what we want them to enjoy.

We can't make them do what we want them to do in play. It must be their play, their joy. We must understand and respect this and allow them to feel secure and to be in control.

Suggestions were offered for children at various stages, from a child who only wants to sit and mouth one favorite object to a child who is ready for pretend play. The idea for joining the child at his/her level works at all stages.

Dr. McCune pointed out the importance of pretend play by explaining that pretend play develops the child's ability to hold and manipulate ideas—in other words, to think! Pretend play is the child's way of remembering and thinking about his/her own life, and what he/she has experienced.

Since toys and other "props" may not hold much interest to a blind/visually impaired child, Dr. McCune suggests letting the child use his/her own body for pretend play for a longer time than a sighted child might. For example, pretending to give a doll a bath may not be interesting to the child, but climbing into a big box and pretending to take a bath him/ herself might work well.

Play, Dr. McCune pointed out, is usually a good indicator of cognitive development but for the blind child it may not be. Normal mental development may be taking place, but the blind child may not be able to demonstrate it through his/her play. Take care not to let someone who might be evaluating your child draw negative conclusions about his/her mental development just because he/she cannot play well. Another factor that might influence the quality of a child's play is the child's strength. Ongoing illness or low energy takes a toll on a child, and the child may choose easier things to do.

Dr. McCune concluded by emphasizing the importance of the child's being allowed and encouraged to make choices and take the initiative in play. This will lead to what we want for them in the future—to be able to think and make decisions for themselves.

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