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Online play with diverse learners

I didn’t think it could be done. It certainly wasn’t what I imagined. But drastic times need drastic action so I moved my therapy work with children online. With a lockdown in place in so many places, vulnerable children with fragile neurology have been required to stay home and services needed to be provided as quickly as possible in the best way they can.

Initially, we had a few days to prepare some play resources, so before saying goodbye to children who I usually see face-to-face, I gave them an art pack to take home with them: drawing pads, crayons and some prepared materials for group activities. But as time goes on and more children need support, we’ve had to be creative and also think about how to adapt their home and use what’s there and what can be easily bought at a nearby store.

So, for those of you who are having to adapt to tele-therapy and online schooling, I would like to share some of the things I’ve found work best when engaging children through play in therapy and education in their homes. I hope these tips help you make the transition from your school or therapy centre into families’ homes, so that these children can get some of their developmental and social-and-emotional needs met during lockdown.

Firstly relationships are key. The foundation of the Developmental Play Pyramid is Attachment and Safety, and this is where all online work should start. The children need to feel safe and seen with you online. I make a point of often calling them by their names, and use “seeing language” so that they feel affirmed, acknowledged and that I am really present for them, even though I’m on a screen.

This kind of language pulls them back to engagement with me and helps them know I’m there. It’s what I call a “ritual of affirmation” and if I’m working with a group, I ensure that throughout the session I name each child at least five times: “Oh, Johnny, I see you’re really enjoying colouring with red” or “Kamala, what a pretty pink shirt you have on today” and “Wow, Ling Ling, I like your doll’s long dark hair.” You can simplify this if necessary for less verbal children, as long as you name them and your voice is full of affect: “Wow, Raj, so clever!” It’s all about the child feeling noticed, observed and validated.

I also ask them to show me things they’re making or playing with, and if possible we take photos of them to document and make the learning visible. This can be sent back to them so their parents can revisit the process with them. Children also learn about perspective and hand-eye co-ordination as they position their play and artworks in the screen.

In our group sessions we’ve also set up a private Facebook page where children can post their artworks and play activities, and my team and I can add comments. This supports the parents as well as creating a sense of belonging in a scattered community. Everyone needs to feel seen, affirmed and that they matter in a crisis. We use social media for this as much as possible, with parental consent.

Second, work needs to be full of affect and sensory input. This is one of the hardest things to do online – a ‘talking head’ won’t engage any child – and computers and phones are some of the least multi-sensory tools we use : the screens are flat, the keyboards are hard, type is two dimensional - whilst at the same time the faces on the screen can be visually distracting and sometimes it can be difficult to hear who is talking - so rather a sensory overload at the same time. I need to use affect, to help many of my children to engage and focus, so I need to be animated, warm, and use lots of big clear body language and modulation of my voice.

It’s hard not to be self-conscious: I try not to look at myself on the screen as I wave, raise my eyebrows, make faces, do little dances, animate puppets and colorful objects across the screen to ensure they are engaged and making sure at the same time that I don’t go too fast with the children and I watch their body language on screen to check they’re picking up my cues and responding. At the same time, if they bring toys, ideas or movements into the frame, I try and build on those and mirror them back so they feel seen. It’s exhausting as I rely on visual cues as I sense and intuit the children’s responses through a screen, but I do need to hold them. I cannot just sit watching on the screen or I will lose them.

We also need to use lots of visuals – tapping into the importance of objects for learning and development – but these need to be engaging so puppets are great. There’s also scope for using sound and voice. I use a drum for getting them regulated through rhythm and to get them to move, and musical instruments and singing are both great, too. I’ve even started to do some drama games which they love as they see themselves being mirrored on the screen, and as we know mirror neurons are really important to develop social learning.

One of the big issues is how to replicate a sensory gym and foundation movements through a screen, and this is where music and movement and action songs, physical games and guided movement come in for groups, as well as free physical play I can build on with the child working with whatever is in their room.

If the child moves a lot, you may want to have the computer scanning their movements so you watch, comment, affirm and build on the movement they seek and they need.

Remember, children need to move at least every couple of hours so we do need to work with that through play. Here’s where creating stories they can act out, helping parents create a circuit in the living room and the 10 sensory games shown in this attached YouTube snippet are key. Children shouldn’t be expected to sit in front of a screen all day (none of us should!). So if your child needs to get up and run around for a bit, make it part of your session, let them move their bodies, clap their hands, stamp their feet, jump and do the wiggle. After engaging their bodies, they will come back far happier and more able to focus.

Online work also means that home becomes the learning and play space. So when I’m invited into the house and if the children and families show me round, I need to support the families to think how to use beds, gardens, shower rooms and communal floor spaces to be the sensory rooms for learning. A bed becomes a trampoline, so we adapt it with cushions and duvets to build more core skills. Water play and messy play happens as an extension of shower time in an easy-to-clean room, or as cake-making and washing up in the kitchen. Mum’s colourful scarves become the movement props or hide-and-seek places.

Each family will be open to different ideas, so setting up play work in each child’s home needs to be a dialogue with the family built on respect, sensitivity and individual differences. What I have found helps is really following the child’s and family’s lead, and giving parents as much support in the areas that they feel matter for being at home with their child. I’m only a fraction of their week, so my job is to support the system and environment the child is in, not to change it so it’s inconvenient the rest of the time. Partnerships with parents in online home work are crucial, and to support this I have created all the Stay at Home Play at Home resources below, as well as free webinars on Why Play Matters and How it Works.

The journey I’ve had to take in the past month has been rather unexpected (as it’s been for so many people), but it’s teaching me so much and I feel that it’s imperative that we harness WhatsApp, Zoom, Skype, Facetime, Google Hangouts, whatever we can, to be with these families, to promote play-based therapy and learning and to ensure that vulnerable children are not neglected. It will never be as easy as in a purpose-built school or clinic, but if we get it right we can have great impact for good on the families and the children we support, at home, or wherever they need to be.

Here are a few resources to support play-based therapy and education in the home:

1) Free webinar on the role of play

2) New Facebook page: Stay At Home Play At Home.

3) Special offer for early childhood workers, clinicians and teachers: Introduction to Developmental Play Short Course, US$10 during lockdown. This four-hour course will show you child development through a new lens. With colorful lectures from the Developmental Play approach founder, Caroline Essame, alongside global experts in play-based learning and therapy. You will learn how play works, why it matters and why now more than ever our children need to play for their wellbeing and resilience. With lectures, podcasts, short movies and hands-on ideas for play, this introductory course will show you the power of play, and inspire you in creative approaches. Study from home and discover the power of play.

4) Parent Course, to share with parents and support your work with their children. The price is reduced to reflect the current worldwide pandemic and will stay at US$10 until restrictions are lifted.

5) FREE SENSORY PLAY YOUTUBE ACTIVITY TO SHARE WITH CLIENTS. We have just released this little movie to promote sensory play on lockdown please share with your clients.

Finally, my respect and thanks go to the parents who have Zoomed me into their homes and juggled work conference calls and other children to work alongside me. It’s not at all easy for these parents to become overnight co-therapists/teachers in the sanctity of their own homes and to trust a relative stranger to work with them and their children in these vulnerable times. These parents will be some of the unsung heroes of this pandemic.

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