Increasing social engagement through joyful play

Issue: Volume 96, Number 20

Posted: 13 November 2017
Reference #: 1H9g9T

A parent shares how playing has improved the way she and her family interact with her child, who is on the autism spectrum.

Using play to improve engagement between adults and children with autism is making a difference for families.

‘Way to Play’ is a collection of practical strategies for playing with children on the autism spectrum. Developed by Autism NZ from a model used at Oaklynn Special School over several years, it is designed to teach parents, caregivers, whānau, health and education professionals how to interact with children with autism in ways they can easily replicate in their homes or early learning environments.

To further boost its reach and effectiveness, an innovative professional learning programme for Learning Support early intervention teachers and speech-language therapists has been co-designed by Autism NZ national educators Neil Stuart and Tanya Catterall and the Ministry of Education Auckland learning support practice and implementation advisors.

“When meaningful engagement for young children with autism is seen in a relational and developmental framework, there is ‘serve and return’ between communication partners, embedded within an emotional context – having fun together!” says Neil.

“It’s important to have quality interpersonal engagement in the starting journey of a child with autism and we know what to do and how to do it through Way to Play.”

Sarah and Joe

Sarah* is mum to three-year-old Joe*, who has autism and attends an early learning service in Auckland. Sarah worked with a speech-language therapist who was attending the Way to Play professional learning programme and attended an introductory workshop with Autism NZ;  the pair then worked on how to implement their strategies effectively to play and interact with Joe. The speech-language therapist supported Sarah through video coaching, which is one of the coaching strategies she’s learnt from the programme.

“I have a better relationship with my son now. We really have fun together and enjoy each other. I would like everyone who works with children to do this course – music teachers, sports coaches, parents – everyone!”

Sarah says she was initially sceptical about the programme.

“When it was first introduced to me, I found it all a bit nerve-racking. I thought, ‘I know how to play with my own child!’ Will I be making a fool of myself in front of other people?’

“Within the first couple of minutes of the course I quickly began to realise how much I could learn and benefit from this. I almost got teary-eyed, because they touched on a lot of characteristics of my son, and I thought, ‘Ok, maybe I don’t know everything about it. I’ll give this a go’.”

Sarah was concerned about the lack of eye contact and interaction she had with Joe, who was not yet using words. Mealtimes had been difficult, and while he was happy and emotionally regulated, his main focus had been on objects such as toy cars and trains, rather than other people.
“My son seemed to lose all eye contact. He didn’t find his family at all as interesting as his cars. I thought, ‘I need you to see that I am your mum, I’m not forcing you to do things you don’t want to do. I need to play with this boy.’ So I used the strategies I learned on the course.

“I started to be really silly; I was doing anything just to get his attention. I was very sceptical to begin with, but he started looking at me again. He started laughing. He put his cars down for me. I had his attention for about eight minutes that first time, which was a huge change.”

Sarah says she taught her husband the strategies, including ‘pattern, memory and variation’ and he also attended a Way to Play workshop.

‘Pattern, memory and variation’ are the terms used for strategies for play that parents can use to interact with their children. Pattern, memory and variation is when an adult makes engaging repetitive actions. Once the pattern is established, the adult will change it to make it slightly different. Memory catchphrases are used to mark when the play begins.

“He is surprised by how it has changed his relationship with Joe. The strategies also work for our other children as well.”

Joe’s two older sisters have also started taking the Way to Play approach, and they now play together more.

“That is a huge thing for us,” says Sarah.

“Joe was non-verbal, but we are hearing some words now. He’s started calling my husband ‘Daddy,’ and it’s hard to explain how meaningful this is for us.”

Kaiako experiences

The speech-language therapist also introduced the Way to Play strategies to the early learning centre and worked with Joe’s kaiako to make a plan for what they want to focus on and how to implement it. Their goal was to better support Joe through social interactions. She supported them through video coaching which they found to be a powerful tool for their learning.

They struggled to get Joe to follow routines and were concerned because he spent most of his time playing with cars or standing on the climbing frame watching cars passing in the street, instead of playing with other children.

Now, Joe and his lead teacher have developed a “really beautiful” relationship. 

The strategies of pattern, memory and variation taught in the course are now the basis of a range of meaningful interactions at the centre, and these tools have now been extended to make routines and functional tasks easier for all children in the setting.

Kaiako have included other children in games involving pattern, memory and variation and the children have been playing with Joe in games such as jumping off a beam holding hands, which is inherent in the principle of Relationships|Ngā Hononga within Te Whāriki where children are supported to learn through responsive and reciprocal relationships with people, places and things.

Sarah and her husband are having a great time playing and engaging with all of their children.

“Whether our children have autism or not, many of us parents forget how to play with our own kids. This programme is reminding us how to play, and how to enjoy spending time with them. It’s changed our lives this year,” says Sarah.

“It’s almost like an angel has come to me and said ‘come on, have fun, you can stop stressing’. I have so much more fun with my son now.”

(*all names are pseudonyms) link)

Way to Play professional learning programme for specialists

The programme was developed for specialists such as speech-language therapists and early intervention teachers to help ensure that the strategies they’ve learnt after the workshops are implemented. Learning session workshops are followed by opportunities to receive feedback using in vivo or video coaching with the presenters. The programme equips them with additional skills to further support parents and kaiako as they build relationship with children.

To ensure active participation in the course, participants set their own learning goals and develop individualised plans to meet these goals. 

The learning outcomes are for participants to:

be able to use the Way to Play strategies confidently prior to introducing these to others

become confident and skilled at using video coaching to support parents and kaiako to learn to implement the strategies.

The programme has had a wider impact on the practice of speech language therapists and early intervention teachers. One of the most noticeable aspects is how engaged they are in their learning and the sessions, and enjoyed and valued taking part in the learning experience. Some of their comments include:

“The PD in itself impacted me that now I have a better understanding of autism and their way of playing. It also helped me look at the intricate and small but salient details/things that an adult is doing to engage the children. The coaching has helped me look for these things, identify them and share it with the family. The coaching also helped me with the way I should converse with the family and how to deliver the important things that they are doing to support their child.”

“I now have a better understanding of what is important to include in an IP for children with autism – which is to focus on social engagement. I feel more comfortable playing with children who have autism now that I understand about pattern, memory and catchphrase.”

“Giving the family and the centre the power to do this in both settings has meant the progress has been incredible – it’s blown me away because I haven’t seen that amount of rapid progress.”


BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 9:00 am, 13 November 2017

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