Creating inclusive play spaces: a place to start

If one hundred people wrote a guide to creating inclusive play spaces the result would be one hundred different guides. That’s no bad thing, they could be a hundred fantastic and useful guides filled with innovative and creative ideas, but, “inclusive” is not a fixed state. And as it is informed by multiple ever changing factors it never will be. I believe inclusion should be an ongoing collaboration amongst the people within a space, it’s about accepting that no one person will ever find the answer, only, an answer.

So, here, I want to share my thinking process and the ideas I use when I’m working to create play spaces and experiences which I want to be accessible to any child who comes into that space. It’s going to be a little messy and incomplete but, as it’s just one piece of that ongoing inclusion collaboration, messy and incomplete is exactly what it should be.

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A “messy and incomplete” pirate ship. Photo shows a collection of tires, wooden pallets, rope and traffic barriers arranged to be a pirate ship. A black flag flies from a bamboo cane sticking out from an upturned giant flower pot. There are leaves from a tree and a brick building with lots of windows in the background.

Inclusion and Access

Firstly, I want to look at two terms, “Inclusion” and “Access”. They are sometimes used interchangeably and confusingly (by myself included) although they mean something different, so I’m going to define how I’m using them in this piece.

When I talk about “Inclusion” I’m referring to the idea that every individual should feel valued for not what they do, say, or look like but who they are. This extends to each individual being able to benefit from, contribute to and simply exist in the social, cultural and physical spaces we inhabit.

When I talk about “Access” I’m referring to the practical consequences of this ideology, the actions we take to try and make this ideology a reality. This includes everything from the way we design and build spaces to the language we use to describe peoples bodies to providing an option of subtitles for an instructional video.

It’s important to try and not confuse these concepts because we need them both. Inclusion needs access to become more than a set of ideas and access needs the foundations of inclusion to be effective.

 

Universal Play Space

There is a concept used in design and architecture called “Universal Design”. This means that when designing buildings, objects, graphic communication, parks etc. the designer will be working to make the product “as usable as possible by as many people as possible regardless of age, ability or situation.” (http://www.universaldesign.com/what-is-ud/). A key aspect of this approach is that accessibility isn’t an afterthought but is integrated throughout the whole process. The outcome tends to be better design for everyone.

This is a concept I adapt and use working in play, let’s call it; The Universal Play Space. Following the concept of universal design, accessibility should never be an afterthought. Of course, the setting and how well you know the children you’re going to be working with will dictate what you know about the access needs of the children. It is unlikely that you’ll be able to predict every need when planning and preparing for a play session. But, here we have an advantage over the designer.

In design the designer will eventually step away from the product and the users will ultimately dictate what happens and how it is used but in play the playworker remains a part of the process. You, the playworker, have flexibility to adapt the session to children’s needs as they come up. This is perhaps not always obvious or easy as a task but willingness to do so, alongside play skills, experience and collaboration with your team and the children, give you a good chance.

Now, keeping the ideas of Inclusion, Access and the Universal Play Space in mind, let’s move on to the process of planning and preparing for a play session.

 

Play session planning

For the purposes of this article and in the hope of clarity I’m going to break down my process into three parts; finding, examining and adapting.

Part 1: Finding

Usually I have a lot of ideas and will draw from that idea bank when presented with a need. But I might also be presented with a need, such as planning something for a specific youth group, and then start searching for ideas, often consulting with the group. In the best situation the idea doesn’t come from you but a child. However you come to it though, at some point you will have an idea to work with. Perhaps messy outdoor play involving paint and sponges, or an imaginative play session with a ghostbusters theme. Now that you have this idea, you’ll likely have an image of that idea playing out in your head, it may be a very detailed scenario or something pretty vague. Either way the next step is to take that image and put it to one side.

This putting aside can be the hardest skill to learn. My experience in play is that you’ll find yourself surrounded by incredibly creative people who will come up with fantastic play ideas. Often the more invested we are in an idea the harder it is to put our image of it aside. I think this can be particularly challenging for those who practice art in some way because we’re so used to taking an idea from start to finish, often for personal enjoyment or satisfaction. But, with practice it can be done. And, in the context of the role of the playworker it is what we need to do because our initial image of an idea playing out isn’t what we’re ultimately aiming for.

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Paint mixer. A blue barrel with a black plastic tube running through it which stands on two stacks of large black car tires. The structure stands on a blue tarp on top of grass. There is a grass lawn and more tyres pictured in the background. There is a jug  filled with yellow paint, a tub of red paint in the foreground. Splashes of paint are visible around the edge of the barrel

Part 2: Examining

Now that you have an idea and have set aside your personal expectations it’s time to examine that idea. The idea isn’t just the image you had of it playing out, it has unlimited possibilities and interpretations. Let’s look at the two examples from above.

For “Messy outdoor play with paint and sponges” we could think about; the exploration of colour and texture, finding new ways of interacting with the outside environment, the joy of mess in itself whether that’s creating a mess or becoming part of one, the sense of mischief that comes from getting away with something, the physical aspect of playing with sponges, throwing them, squishing them, jumping on them.

For “imaginative play with ghostbusters theme” we have; creating and sharing story lines, reimagining a familiar environment, exploring different social roles, designing and making props, directing and negotiating with others, experimenting with emotions like feeling scared or brave, running, jumping, crawling, hiding games, observing others at play.

When you start to explore and discover all these different aspects of one single play idea it becomes much easier to understand how that play idea can work for any child whatever their access needs. It comes down to what we all know but in practice, with the anxiety that comes along with wanting to ‘get things right’, we can forget; there is no one right way to play. Examining ideas like this enables you to have a broader understanding of what a child is actually experiencing in play and therefore what you could do to enable another child to share that experience in their own way.

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Photo taken from above shows three red buckets each with a different mix of bark, leaves, sand and water inside. The buckets are sitting on top of a slatted wooden bench and there is grass and dirt visible in the background.

Part 3: Adapting

Having examined your idea you can again conjure up your image of how this is going to play out. How has it changed from the beginning of this process? Some of these changes might affect the way you set up an activity and the resources you gather.

For the messy paint and sponge play you may have initially been thinking about just having large quantities of paint for children to dip sponges in and throw but now you’re also considering how a certain child may not appreciate the tactile sensory side of the play but may still want to explore colour. You might make sure you have multiple colours available and pallets to mix in as well as long handled painting implements and perhaps an option of gloves to wear.

For the ghostbusters activity you may have been thinking about a structured chasing and catching game with defined roles but in examining the idea you might have thought about a child who finds these kinds of games stressful but they may really enjoy creating scripts or movies by themselves. Here you might be able to set up an ‘observation booth’ area in the playground where no ghosts or ghostbusters can go but the child can view what’s happening and perhaps film or give directions to the children in the game.

You will likely make adaptations to the preparation and planning in this way but the majority of adaptations will be made in the moment when the play is happening and you observe a child getting frustrated about not understanding a game and struggling to join in, or perhaps trying to do something completely different with an activity but needing permission or assistance.  This is where you step in, use your skills, imagination and explorations to make this a play space for that child. Remember, you are the most flexible part of this process.

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Photo shows two ghosts made from bubble wrap with blank silver cd’s as eyes hanging from a wooden structure. There is a brightly coloured parachute in the back ground and the ground is green astro turf.

To Summarise:

FIND a play idea, identify your expectations of how the idea might play out and set these aside.

EXAMINE the idea, think of different ways a child might experience the play with different senses, interests, abilities and access needs.

ADAPT to incorporate these different possibilities. Where possible anticipate interests and access needs of the children and prepare for them in your planning. In the moment use your flexibility as a playworker to enable each child to experience the play.

I like to sum up this approach with the statement:

There’s no such thing as just climbing a tree.

Climbing trees seems to be this quintessential childhood play experience for so many people and for a child who can’t physically do this those people might see a huge barrier to play. This is where we need to set aside our personal expectations, and look at what ‘climbing a tree’ actually is. When we do that we discover so many different aspects to an experience that someone can be a part of. In a playground setting that may be finding other ways to experience heights and risk, creating a sensory space using bark, leaves and sticks or using video technology to experience different viewpoints. Remember each child’s play is valuable and valid.

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Image of a black pen and pencil drawing of a colourful tree. There is red text at the bottom of the images saying “Just Climbing a tree?”. There is a child in the tree partially obscured by leaves and branches. the child has light brown skin and dark brown long hair with streaks of purple. They are smiling with there arms in hanging to one side with one foot on a branch.  The image is covered in captions which say; hear the wind in the branches, be by yourself, see if you can reach the clouds, conspiring with nature, being up high, hide, smelling the leaves, looking down and feeling sick, feel the bark against your skin, explore colours and patterns, break the rules, surprise yourself or others, take a risk, be a monkey, feel scared, getting  a different point of view and feel you skin stretch and muscles strain.

Putting this into practice

“Inclusion” often rings hollow to people because it’s seen as a far of ideology rather than a way of doing things. This means Inclusion often becomes tokenistic, because people put things into practice in the name of inclusion whilst not truly believing in it as a concept. I still don’t have a grand solution but as I stated at the beginning of this article I wholeheartedly believe inclusion needs collaboration to work and I hope this piece of writing can be a part of that. I also stated that “Inclusion” is not a fixed thing, in my own practice my focus is often disability and access but need to continually step back and remember all the other essential factors which could include gender identity and expression, sex, race, religion, class, sexual orientation, migrant status and language. A lot of this kind of work is accepting what you don’t know and unlearning what you think you do know. Which, doesn’t come naturally to most of us.

All that said, I want to leave you with some things that I do know.

Inclusion is not just a matter of practicality, it’s a matter of heart. Just making sure a kid in a wheelchair can get into the playground doesn’t mean they’ll feel like they belong there. Just because you don’t stop a kid from jumping and flapping doesn’t mean they’ll feel free. Using alternative communication in the play space won’t necessarily make a kid feel like their ideas and feelings matter.

All these things are important and essential but they won’t do alone.

Inclusion is about the way we think about each other and how this translates to our relationships and the spaces we create and inhabit together. So when you’re thinking about how to make your practice inclusive, before anything else, you need to examine that thought. Why do I want to do this? What do I think inclusion means? What are my experiences of inclusion and exclusion? Each of us has been conditioned to think about the world in a certain way. In my experience of disability it was a narrative that centred loss, sadness and a life somehow less valuable or worth living. A narrative that I wholeheartedly and absolutely dismiss but need to be continually aware of to understand and recognise how it may impact on my thinking and behaviour.

Doing this kind of thinking can be difficult but is a necessary part of inclusion that stops it being a far off ideology and makes it a tool we can use to each make our practice and life so much better. And then? It’s time to collaborate and create.

I’ll see you on the playground!

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Playful Communication #2: Permission

In play work we talk a lot about permission and in my role I definitely spend a lot of time giving it. Sometimes it’s something simple, just a “yes, you can use that” or “yes, you can climb that’. Sometimes it’s a more complicated “yes if” or maybe a “tell me more….” Sometimes children aren’t just seeking permission but guidance. Sometimes they come to the playground and just can’t stop asking permission because they’re not used to so much freedom. Sometimes someone might just want permission to talk and share something with you. A very common scenario, and a personal favourite, is when someone isn’t really asking permission at all; like when a child demands to know if they can triple back-flip of the roof of the shed or tip a bucket of water over your head. Usually this will be something they perceive as either risky or rule-breaking and often it’s a test of who you are and what kind of relationship they’re going to have with you. And, though it’s probably not going to be a straight up yes, with a bit of creativity it usually doesn’t have to be a hard no. Taking a child’s request seriously shows them you take them seriously and so respect and value their ideas. This creates a relationship where they’re more likely to share their ideas and play in a freer way. Of course the other side of giving permission is asking for it, and that’s what I want to explore a little more here.

Ask!

Imagine you’re observing a play session, you notice one, very determined child, chasing another holding a raggedy straw hat. The child being chased doesn’t look like they are having fun and they are starting to get angry. You walk over and figure out that the first child is trying to make the other wear the hat, the child doesn’t want to because it’s a super gross hat (you secretly agree; it’s always a super gross hat). You step in to explain to the first child that the other doesn’t have to wear the hat and it’s better to ask the other child and listen to their answer. Both children are upset but the hat-fiend apologises and you (forever a martyr) ask if they’ll put the hat on you. The first child feels confused though. Perhaps because yesterday, when they were upset because another child kept touching their hair, the grown-up said to ‘be nice and let them’ and when they go to grandma’s house they have to give her a cuddle before bed even though they don’t like how it feels.

Always ask. Adults often don’t ask children permission, and they should. Asking doesn’t have to be verbal, it might be using a symbol or a gesture or simply giving a clear opportunity to say no. Asking permission isn’t just important to your relationship with the child in the present moment, it is also part of a responsibility we have to model positive boundaries and good use of consent for that child as they continue to grow and navigate new situations and relationships.

Disabled children will likely have had regular contact with medical and healthcare professionals throughout their lives and so will be used to strange adults investigating their bodies and minds in a way that many non-disabled children won’t have. If they have personal care needs they will also be used to adults of varying degrees of familiarity attending these. This just makes it all the more important to be clear and conscientious about asking permission when physically engaging with a child. It is vital to respect the child’s person-hood and ownership of their body to enable them to distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate kinds of touch.

There is a troubling behaviour I see over and over again where adults think that it’s okay to invade a child’s space or touch their body. When I worked in a school with profoundly and physically disabled children I would often notice that supply teachers or new staff wouldn’t hesitate to touch a child’s head or shoulder or lean on their chair within seconds of meeting them, not even giving the child time to process that the person was near them. This would infuriate me, it’s almost as if the more vulnerable an adult would perceive a child to be the less need they would have to ask permission. This could be down to an assumption that the child can’t give permission or an assumption that the adult doesn’t need permission. I think in part this behaviour is a result of people not knowing how to navigate relationships where communication is non-verbal. Not knowing how to communicate with someone can often lead to ignoring or disrespecting their person-hood. But with time and patience we can always find a way to ask.

yes no sign

Two rectangles side by side. The first is green, it has a line drawing of a closed fist with arrows indicating in moving up and down. It is titled ‘yes’. The second rectangle is red and has an image of a closed hand with index, middle and thumb touching and then opening. it is titled ‘no’.

Establishing a ‘yes’ and ‘no’

In any relationship establishing a ‘yes’ and ‘no’ is key. When meeting a child for the first time this is part of my role as a play worker, it’s something I always prioritise, particularly as a lot of the children I work with may not say yes or no in the expected or simple way. In a play environment there are plenty of opportunities to do this. I’ve broken these down into four categories, although I’m sure there are many more.

  1. “Can I…?”

This can be a part of introducing yourself to someone, asking ‘can I join you’ when a child is playing or sitting somewhere can tell you straight away how someone communicates consent. If they say no, or walk or turn away, then respect this. It doesn’t mean they won’t want to spend time with you at some other point and if you respect their response in that moment they are more likely to want to do so. You might also ask “can I show you this” or “can you tell me about that”.

  1. Offering choices.

For a child who is maybe shy or who you’re unsure about how to communicate with; offering them a clear choice of something to do can be a fairly low pressure way to engage with. Make sure you keep the choices you offer simple and low impact. Use options that are visual and concrete rather than abstract. For example “Do you want to use this parachute?” rather than “Do you want to play a game outside or go to the art room”

  1. Expressing approval or dislike

Watching a child to gauge how they interact with and respond to an environment can give you indicators of how they may communicate ‘yes’ and ‘no’. This is perhaps a less direct method but for someone who communicates non-verbally you may need to think a bit wider about how to ask permission. Recognising how they express liking or disliking something can help with this. For example you may see a child wrinkle up their face and pull their head back when there is a loud bang. Later on when you approach them with a fluffy puppet they may wrinkle their face again, perhaps you could sit down within their eye line without the puppet and see how their body language changes.

  1. Asking someone who knows the child already

If you’re getting to know a child who has complex communication needs it can be helpful to chat to someone who knows them better. Just make sure you don’t take what they say as set in stone. Because every individual relationship is different. But finding out some basic information can help you avoid doing particular things that might trigger behaviours or make someone uncomfortable or scared.

Permission is an ongoing part of any relationship and works both ways. When asking permission you’re also giving permission to someone to say yes or no. You’re creating a space where they can have autonomy and feel comfortable to express themselves.

Permission in the Play Space

Permission and consent are key functions of communication and central to enabling free play. Permission allows a child to explore ideas and experiences, in the best kinds of play spaces children should feel that they already have permission to be themselves and should be encouraged to ask and seek consent from other children and adults in their joint play. As play workers, as carers and as adults it’s our responsibility to keep listening, observing and learning so we can create the best spaces and experience for children in our care.


My first piece in this series focused on shifting our understanding of communication as simply the imparting and receiving of information to communication as the way we share our worlds with each other. It has many different elements which include both ‘functional’ communication such as question asking or requesting things and also ‘expressive’ communication which we may use to share our emotional or sensory experience. I also highlighted the importance of de-prioritising speech as the main or most valuable way of communicating to better understand and recognise other kinds of communication and people who use them. If you like you can find that first piece here: https://playradical.blog/2016/12/09/playful-communication-the-joys-of-the-non-functioning/?preview_id=221&preview_nonce=6dd19bcf26

 

 

Play Diary: the Window

I look up and see three faces pushed up against the glass of the main doorway. The faces belong to three small, blond children waiting to be granted entry to the play hall whilst their adults do the admin bit. What makes me smile particularly is not that they’re very cute (which they are), or even that they look very excited (which, they don’t exactly, it’s more curious-anticipation meets threatening-boredom) but, that instead of just looking through the glass, seeing what’s going on, sizing up the other kids etc.; they have opted to squash their faces right up against it. They’re definitely going for maximum surface area contact, skin to glass, I assume at the expense of actually being able to see properly. One of them has glasses and as a glasses wearer myself I have to admire his effort, they can be a big obstacle between a face and full window immersion. Somehow though, this kid’s managing.

Unable to resist such a play opportunity I put my half-built egg box marionette to one side and walk over. Initially they scarper to hide behind the legs of their still busy adults but when I crouch down and peer through the window they creep back, one at a time. I tap the glass they duck, I drum my fingers they drum back, I place my hands in front of their eyes and they move back and forth until they escape long enough to see me pull a face. New game, showing teeth, sticking out tongues, hiding faces, reappearing. The smallest is crouched in the corner looking up and me as I continue to play with the biggest. The second I dart my eyes towards her she bursts out laughing and puts a hand on the glass, we tap fingers lightly and continue to laugh as I duck in and out of eye-line. The middle reappears for a second, sticks out a tongue and disappears again. The biggest suddenly bangs a palm loudly above my head, a little harder perhaps than he meant as he looks somehow surprised and worried. I smile and knock gently opposite where his palm had been and we’re back to the beginning.

As the group prepares to come in I move out of the way and step back into the hall. I’m forgotten by two but the biggest runs in and immediately spots me; without the glass between us he’s suddenly shy but he gives me a little wave before darting outside where more unexplored territories wait. The window is filthy.

A couple of fantastically messy paint play ideas

Everybody loves paint. Aside, perhaps, from the parents of very well dressed children, but they can learn! Paint is never boring. It provides visual, tactile and olfactory sensory stimulation, it can be mixed, thrown, experimented with and can be used to transform the play space. Paint can be a play thing in itself or be a part of a larger creative and messy play. Today I thought I’d share a couple of my favourite paint based play ideas I’ve used in the playground.

Car Paint Shop

You know those orange and yellow fisher price cars which have been around forever? Well, they don’t have to be orange and yellow anymore! Here I set up a ‘workshop’ area using a tarp and some parachutes and just left the cars there with a bunch of paint. This went down incredibly well. Its messy, it uses something familiar and it allows a sense of getting-away-with-something. A bonus of this was towards the end of the day we took the cars out and turned it into a car wash activity with sponges, bubbles and plenty of water.

Moon Boots

Here I got hold of a bunch of big yellow car wash sponges and attached them to the bottom of different sized pairs of wellies with elastic. I wanted to create a sensory experience with paint that the children probably hadn’t experienced before. The sponges changed how they had to balance which gave it a challenge i hadn’t anticipated. I laid out trays of paint and let them get stuck in. Like the activity above this one had a sense of getting-away-with-something as they got to stand in paint and cover the playground with it.

Let me process my sensory processing

content warning: this post contains discussion of mental health and has self harm mentions

I’m a sensitive guy

When I say I’m Sensitive, I really mean it, in its most literal sense. Certain noises make me flinch and squirm, certain lights make me nauseous, and food is a textural minefield. Wagon wheels (a biscuit with chocolate and marshmallow- a terrible terrible combination) must have been on offer one week in primary school because they showed up in my lunch box out of the blue. I cried every lunchtime that week at just the idea of having to eat them. Ten years later I held back tears in a Subway eating a sandwich with two different crumbly textures that just didn’t work together. It’s kind of embarrassing being a teenager crying at a sandwich in front of your new uni pals. Especially when you can’t explain why and are not even sure if an honest explanation would even improve things. Little old ladies shaking tins and handing out charity stickers were a childhood enemy; to this day I still can’t deal with stickers, sticky labels and certain types of plasters (I’ve made a lot of progress with this one). Light touch can set off a jarring metallic sharpness that runs through my whole body, it can trigger a sudden intense anger and distress; a total mood killer. There is an ingredient in certain cosmetics and toiletries that I’ve narrowed down to being in ‘berry scented’ things, it makes me feel overwhelmingly nauseous and disgusted. I once dated someone who had a raspberry lip balm, it took me a while to figure out what was going on, but whatever the underlying reason, it turns out no one wants to hear “I really like you but sometimes kissing you makes me want to vomit”.

I could go on (and kind of want to because this is pretty therapeutic) but what I’m trying to get across here is that while sensory processing issues can be unpredictable, wide-ranging, bizarre and effect every area of a person’s life they can, perhaps most importantly, be intensely emotional. I’ve noticed that when we talk about things like sensory overload or challenging behaviours being a response to sensory stimulation we have a tendency to emphasise the physical side of things. Being hypersensitive to noise is often explained as being physically painful, and I’m not saying this is untrue, but for me it’s the emotional impact of noise that causes the most pain*.

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Sensory processing and mental health

Let me give you some context; I’ve experienced problems with my mental health for at least the last ten years (before that I don’t really have much emotional memory other than particularly strong points of distress or joy) I’m a chronic depressive, I have ongoing anxiety and occasional panic attacks, I have experienced intrusive and obsessive thoughts, this effects my sleep and tiredness levels, digestion and eating. This is just a part of my life and its okay, it really is, whilst these things are inseparable from my day to day life they are also not fixed, they change and I change. But as I’ve gotten older I’ve slowly realised how intrinsic my sensory experiences are too my mental health. And it frustrates me that had I understood and the people around me acknowledged that sensory issues have an emotional impact I may have had to struggle a whole lot less.

For example when I have been in noisy environment, particularly one with many layers of noise such as a pub or busy supermarket, and move out of that into a quiet one I will immediately feel relief but then following that will often fall very quickly into a depressive and sometimes even suicidal state. In the past this has manifested in compulsive self-harm and related behaviours. It’s taken me a long time to recognise this as a pattern but now I can try to manage this in a healthier way. I can’t always prevent or avoid this state but I can understand it and take steps to look after myself. This is when I haven’t even got to the level of what I’d describe as sensory overload. When I hit that level I just stop working. My thoughts can’t organise themselves, I can’t speak or communicate properly, it can feel like I’m internally screaming, I feel helpless and all I can do if just desperately try to will myself out of existence. The comedowns from this are usually slower to happen but can last a lot longer. It’s very rare that I hit this level but I’m constantly aware that I can and the constant low-level stress of existing in an unpredictable world like this can be just as damaging as those moments when it peaks.

Lack of Control

So there’s that immediate emotional impact but there’s a more subtle long term force at work; the emotional impact of an ongoing lack of control. It begins with being a kid and feeling constantly on the verge of distress, you don’t have the communication skills to explain what’s going on or even the ability to understand it. You probably just have very strong ideas about what is okay and what you desperately need to avoid. You create games and rules to try and control these things the best you can but they never work all the time. Not only can you not control the environment around you but you also can’t control your own reaction to it. You keep trying and as you get older you develop new coping mechanisms, these have different shelf lives, some things might work for days, some for months, years. You have different options, you can become the centre of the universe as you know it, from this point you can make the most noise and draw the most attention and gain control over your environment that way. Or you can withdraw and create a smaller world that just has you in it. Either way you still can’t find sensory balance that other people just don’t seem to need to think about it. It’s a mystical superpower because no matter how hard you try you feel under attack from the world and you keep crashing. You might find it difficult to connect with others, go to new places, and do new things because you’re constantly working to keep your mind and body safe. No experience stands alone, they all happen in the context of both your memories and current emotional state. The impact this has had on me is huge and I meet so many children who seem to be experiencing something similar.

Why am I telling you all this

We all work every day to find balance between the information our senses are constantly receiving and the energy and time we put into understanding and reacting to it. For some people they never have to think about this, it more subconscious behind the scenes kind of stuff, for some it may occupy every moment and use every resource they have. I see this in children I work with who have to limit and control their every experience in order to function or children who find their way through the world using repetition and constant sensory stimulation to create predictability and safety. My experiences is neither of these but it’s also not fixed and will change.

I’ve focussed on hypersensitivity to noise in this article because it is very common amongst people with sensory issues and is perhaps the most widely acknowledged cause of sensory distress. This may be because its impact can be particularly obvious and the problematic stimulus is often easy to identify for people outside of the experience. Effective interventions can be pretty easy to achieve by either removing the noise or changing the individual’s experience of the noise through the use of headphones, white noise, ear plugs/defenders etc. However unlike something like sensitivity to different food tastes or textures where the individual can control what they eat, you can never have full control over what you hear. And this becomes more problematic the more someone goes new places, experiences new things.

I strongly believe the emotional impact of sensory issues needs to be acknowledged and explored; especially by those in caring roles such as mine. Sensory processing issues are super common in people who are autistic, have ADHD, learning disabilities and/or fit under the umbrella of neurodiversity but they are hard to understand. Because of this we often look at them in a simplified way, for example, thinking if you simply get rid of a noise that was distressing someone then that experience is over for the individual. Now there is ‘no reason’ for them to behave in a way you find challenging. We need acknowledge the broader impact of these experiences if we want to support people kindly and effectively.

Let’s let people be complicated and be willing to not always understand but to keep trying. And if I ever appear physically repulsed when you offer me food, please try not to take it too personally.

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* I want to note a couple of issues at play here. Firstly the idea of pain being either physical or emotional is false. Pain is complex and I don’t believe it is ever solely physical or solely emotional and to force this separation is to oversimplify and ignore parts of an individual’s experience. Secondly with this in mind, we broadly consider physical pain to be more legitimate or important than emotional pain. Again I don’t believe in this idea and will be writing more on this issue in the future.

Diagrams and Laughter

laughter vd

. A drawing of a Venn diagram with three circles. The title is “Expression”. The circles are labelled “Emotional”, “vocal” and “physical”. The middle of the diagram where all the circles meet is labelled “laughter”.

I wanted to take a moment today to share this image. It’s a diagram I drew a couple of years ago and come back to it often when thinking about communication. It shows how laughter uses all our methods of expression at once, its emotional, physical and verbal.

I once worked with a kid who was extremely verbal but with little language use or understanding. Every day I saw her we’d sit down and i’d tell her the- always dramatic, very flamboyant- tale of how i’d got to work that day. The thing was, despite probably understanding little of the things I was saying, she always laughed in the right places. I loved these mornings and I love how humour has a way of transcending language and so many other potential barriers to communication.

I often think the most uninhibited people will be amongst strangers is when laughing. Perhaps it has something to do with the way it occupies all these means of expression at once and perhaps it’s also the way it brings down these communication barriers, makes us less self conscious or concerned and more open to that joy and connection.

For the love of Cardboard! ; Tips for junk modelling

At 24 years old the simple cardboard box has never lost its appeal for me. With my noble partner-in-creation duck tape and sometimes associates, gaffa, sello and duct (for the pedants), anything is possible. Fortunately most kids seem to feel the same way. So, here are some tips for anyone whose ever felt a little intimidated by the possibilities or pressures (“can we make a dinosaur submarine robot with fairy wings!?” etc.) of junk modelling!

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A man stands holding a large water pistol wearing a space helmet and shoulder suit made of cardboard, bubble wrap and tape

1.Break what you want to make down into key shapes. Then take the biggest of those and start there, this can almost always be a simple box shape! For example if you’re making a rocket you’ll maybe start with a tall box shape and then add fins, cones, fire etc.  It’s much easier to work this way and if you’re working with a group of kids you can then ask what they’d like to add. But always start big and work out to the smaller parts. You’ll end up with something sturdier and the composite parts will be made to purpose.

2. Work with the shapes already in the materials. In most piles of junk you will find cardboard with ready made corners and folds. Don’t cut these up to create new corners and folds, figure out how you can incorporate existing ones into your model. You’ll make something sturdier with less sweating and suppressing swearing.

3.Glue OR Tape. It’s time to make a choice folks. That is all I’ll say.

4.Paint/decorate after- always build the structure first- or risk compromising its integrity

5.Let go and let the kids ultimately lead the way. The joy of junk modelling is the short cycle of creation and destruction! Embrace it and have fun, you can always tidy up later.

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This is an alien giraffe. The kid who made it said it was an alien giraffe, so that’s what it is, and it’s perfect.

And for a bit of inspiration, check out this kid and his creations.

 

Play Diary: Telling Stories

I know a child who speaks in headlines and snippets from stories of mischief and chaos. He mixes characters, plot points and slapstick action with highlights from days in his life. Though it may sound like a random collage it’s never outside of a certain rationality; rules and facts of life drawn from the workings of traffic signals, YouTube videos of flash floods and the strange things adults say and do. When you talk to him in the Now, ask him to do things, give him choices, and enquire about his day he is on alert. The more you ask of him the more panic can start to creep into his voice. He’ll answer in questions or in seemingly off-shoot statements. When you talk to him in his vocabulary of stories he relaxes, he hops, flaps and smiles. When you speak his language well trust forms and slowly but joyfully you move from telling him his own stories too creating stories together. What may look to an outsider like something repetitive and rigid is actually a very niche kind of play. We’re playing with building blocks made of phrases, actions and noises. Sometimes we’re rearranging them and introducing new blocks and sometimes we’re bringing out reliable structures and colour combinations, just enjoying them for what they are.

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A frequent ‘building block’ in our stories. Mr Bean sits waving from an armchair tied to the roof of an old green mini-cooper car driving alongside a green field.

 

I once created a story tent for a group of children in the corner of an open high ceilinged, drafty gym hall scattered with scooters, balls and rackets. For some children their playful spirit is like oxygen, a gas, it seamlessly grows and shrinks to fill and take over any space. For some it’s more like water, a liquid, in certain spaces it is still and unmotivated, stuck, but in the right environment it can flow effortlessly and spectacularly. Out in the hall these different kinds of children might not work together, some so much more naturally suited than others, but in this colourful cosy micro-environment different children could flourish together. Sharing and exploring this new space and its purpose created about ten magical minutes of joint play. They took turns as they told each other stories wrapped in blankets holding torches. Accompanying each other with drum rolls and scary faces. Three children sat up in a circle, one child lay at the back in the cosiest corner maybe listening and another sat to one side drawing zombies. But all experienced the space together or parallel to each other in their own way.

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The Story Tent: A montage of four photographs of a parachute den play space. The first shows the den from a distance. You can see it is built from two colourful parachutes hung together creating a high sloping ceiling. A comfy blue mat pokes out from the den. The second shows the inside. There is a pile of story and fact books on the mat. Loose pieces of fabric a piled up and a small drum hangs from the ceiling. The third shows a upright board within the den which has been covered in paper for drawing. Assorted coloured pens lie on the floor and you can see there are lots of drawings that have been done including one which says “beware of zombies!”. The fourth is a close up of a drawing which says “yard” in a blue cloud with red hand drawn underneath

In many ways these are two completely different tales of play but they both use the idea and tool of the story. Perhaps the most human product. The need to hear, read, discover and share stories seems to be universal. In play, stories have many uses, but the way I use them most is too provide structure. The idea of structure might seem to go against the ideas of play, of freedom of movement and imagination. But not every child can access that freedom with ease, especially outside their private environment. Forgetting this prevents us from recognising and allowing space for certain children’s play. For a lot of children I work with the world is a chaotic and confusing place, especially the social world which is so important in play spaces. To be able to play they must first feel safe which requires feeling able to communicate with those around them and feeling able to understand their environment enough to focus on something else. The first child I talk about above is a great example of how finding a shared communication allows for play, it not only makes him feel understood but allows him to understand me and creates the opportunity for me to be interesting. The following group of children were able to engage in a different kind of play when within an environment that made sense to all. It was the structure provided by stories that allowed for this.

The structure I’m talking about here isn’t a very fixed or elaborate one. A story has to begin somewhere, it has to be headed somewhere and there needs to be some form of conflict or point of multiple possibility. It’s simply something the child can jump off from and come back to at any point should things become confusing or overwhelming. It’s a part of feeling safe. I think we all use some kind of structure even if it’s just as a starting point, a way to transition into play. A lot of children manage this for themselves, others may need a little help or time to learn the skill for themselves. In my work I’ll often jump into play at a point where children are becoming distressed and/or someone is likely to come to harm, or when an activity is becoming to unsafe and I need to provide guidance. My way in will be bringing the play back to the original spark or idea, encouraging progressing, asking what’s next? What happens if? So this time machine, are you going backwards or forwards? Have you meddled in the past too much? You must fix it! What I’m doing is reminding them of the story, bringing them back to the narrative to help resolve conflict or find a new way forward.

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A time machine i often come across at work looks suspiciously like this supermarket trolley…

The act of telling a story is a way of providing a structure without boxing a child in. It provides a rhythm and familiarity that the child recognises allowing and giving permission for them to take control. This can work whether you are part of the story or simply providing the environment where it can happen. It’s a kind of ‘in-road’ to play when be able to play isn’t straightforward, for whatever reason that may be. Stories can take you anywhere.

 

Playful Communication: the joys of the ‘non-functioning’

“Communication is about our ability to share our lives with other people”            

Working in play, particularly in disability and additional needs settings, has blown open my understanding of what communication is. The quote above from therapist and author Phoebe Caldwell is, to me, is the best explanation of where I’ve landed. Most definitions of communication I see or hear focus on the imparting and receiving of information, they usually also mention speech and writing as how this can be done. I’m not suggesting these definitions are invalid or wrong, just that I feel they largely miss the point; sharing. Our communication is the reason we are able to exist alongside each other and the effectiveness of our communication is what determines how harmoniously we are able to do this. It’s not just the imparting and receiving of information that makes up communication, it’s that bit in the middle, the bit where you are existing in the same moment as another person and choosing to explore that together. That’s where the truth and joy of communication lies, not in the mechanics, in the sharing.

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Painting by Keith Haring

Speech is so often prioritised and seen as the ultimate way of communicating, and, that’s because for many, it is. Speech seems to come fairly naturally to most and from what I understand feels natural too, easy and satisfying. But not for everyone and if you take anything from this post I hope it’s this; speech is not the only way, the best way or the most ‘human’ way to communicate. When I’m able to communicate with someone without speaking I feel at my most content, connected and understood. People often mistake quietness or lack of conversation as a lack of things to express or desire to communicate. That’s not true, it’s perhaps just that talking, to them, is the most natural way to communicate and connect with people and therefore they assume, to everyone. I can speak, often very well, but talking often feels like a means to an end rather than an end itself, it’s for that ‘functional’ bit of communicating rather than that expressive, joyful sharing bit. Writing is different for me, when I’m writing in a way that feels natural it feels much closer to drawing than speaking.

De-prioritising speech is especially important in my line of work. A lot of the kids I work with don’t speak, can’t speak or perhaps speech just isn’t a form of communication that comes natural to them. That’s not to say speech isn’t important or useful, just that it is a way of communication that has no more or less value than any other kind; the way we jump or rock, the noises we make, images we create, the faces we pull, the way we move through and change our environment, the pauses we take to breathe and be, sharing touch and laughter and any other way you can think of that allows us to express ourselves. When kids face challenges in their ability to communicate we put a lot of emphasis on teaching and enabling them to communicate functionally, in doing this we also need to remember that a person’s inability to communicate is equally our inability to understand them. Whilst we create tools and put time into giving a child a way to ask for the toilet or a snack we also need to take the time to notice and respond to all those kinds of communications a person uses as they try to share their world. Ignoring these or dismissing these as less important than that ‘functional’ communication can cause us to isolate people in our attempt to understand them.

One of the many reasons I love working in play is that the play space is an environment where different forms of communication are already valued and recognised. It’s allows for, encourages and often even priorities those non-functional or non-verbal communications. In this way it creates a beauty and authenticity I think we could all benefit from if we took the time to explore it.


Phoebe Caldwell is an author and practitioner who works with people considered to have severe communication difficulties. She uses the technique ‘intensive interaction’ and has written extensively on the subject. Here’s her website where you can find more information including information in ‘easy-read’ formats; http://www.phoebecaldwell.co.uk/       

Space Cadet 101: A Poem

My mind is a multimedia multi-dimensional collage constantly being compiled. You can dive in at any level and wander around and around

I have a theory it runs on old software that was never invented or invented but not finished or conceived but not created or something

Just something

which doesn’t quite work as it’s meant too, doesn’t quite work in a way that’s ideal. It doesn’t get the job done but it definitely gets a job done.

Or several jobs half done

Every so often it decides to finally pack up and leave. Find somewhere quieter, somewhere with softer edges where thoughts can roam without intent or purpose. But then it takes a nap and wakes up to find itself on a nearly blank page. Nearly blank because the ink has seeped through from the previous days and days.

There is so much to make sense of, process, file, re-call, catch, exhaust, exhaust, exhaust. But then there are The Moments.

Moments when I feel the world with such clarity that everything stops. I imagine my lungs, my heart, my feet; my every blood cell in suspended animation as the moment holds me steady and cradles me.

It was maybe you, or them. It was colour or water or the sudden absence of sound. It was art, or joy or perfect lines, angles and contrast.

I exhale and the relief reboots my system. New energies mix with old and the noise builds but the sensation of that last Moment becomes ink that seeps and stains.