I have been reading a book by Dr. Arnold Miller lately. I read half of his older book, which has the intriguing title, From Ritual to Repertoire. In fact, I read the first half of that book several times but it was so complex that I always quit before completing the book. Then I would open the book again a year later and start over at the beginning--learning every bit as much the next time around. I think I will complete Dr. Miller's new book, The Miller Method. It is shorter and easier but still filled with fascinating ways of thinking about the learning patterns of children and the learning demands of adults.
The idea from this book that I thought about today was the idea of establishing and then disrupting a system. As I organized a bubble activity, initiated by a preschool friend, I turned the activity into a routine with a predictable sequence of actions. As I did this, I thought I am creating a system--that is what Dr. Miller would call this. Once I had helped my young friend learn the routine (and we had a system established), I would pause and wait at a crucial moment in order to let my little friend do something in order to keep the routine going. The pause I thought, is a disruption of the system--or at least the threat of a disruption. Because I had created a predictable and motivating routine, my friend was willing to work to keep it going. At every pause, he found a way to keep the game going--or if he didn't, I showed him a way.
Here was the game: I blew bubbles and asked my buddy, a precocious letter reader, to pop with M. After a few demonstrations, he was able to pop bubbles with any letter that I named. I stopped blowing bubbles then and waited. He looked confused, then picked up a letter without being asked and looked at me and finally blew air to tell me to do my part. Oh, I said, blow. Blow, he repeated. He had a reason to communicate because he wanted me to hold up my end of the game. From then on, saying blow was part of the system. For some friends, this alone would be a major accomplishment and I would not expect any more than saying blow and listening for which letter to pick up. But for this friend, I knew we could learn more by adding to or changing slightly or disrupting our little system.
Our system was like a circle where a sequence of activities were all grouped into one thing, in this case Popping with Letters. The circle included 1) Tahirih named a letter 2) friend picked the correct letter up and said blow 3) Tahirih blew bubbles into the air 4) friend popped bubbles. Repeat. Uh Oh! I can't repeat. My little friend held on to his letter M and looked at me expectantly. I wanted him to set M down so I could name another letter. 5) sit down M, I said. Sit Down M, my friend repeated.
The language task required in this game was to correctly comprehend the letter name--no problem for my friend. He knows his letters. But I needed to create the game with something he already knew so that he could pay attention to the steps of the game. This is a Joint Attention game because we are both attending to the same thing, share an intention to continue to play the game, and it is a Joint Attention game because we are sharing an emotion related to this game. We both like the game and think it is kind of funny to tell letters to sit down. We have Reciprocity, a back and forth interaction, because he and I both know what we are suppose to do at every step and we keep taking our turns to keep the game going. Learning to play Joint Attention games and learning to be Reciprocal in social interactions are both very important learning objectives. It would be good for many children with ASD to simply experience such games and learn to stay longer in such games. But, today, I think we can use this system that we have created for still more learning. So I need to think of a way to do this.
I have many choices at this point:
Option 1) I can quit, and see if my friend tries to get me to play the game again with him. If my friend found or learned a way to communicate his desire to play again, it would help him learn the skill of Initiating a Social Game. I might encourage him to ask his mom to play by saying Mommy, play Pop with Letters!. If he repeated this, he might be able to practice initiating a game with mom at home.
Option 2) I could get my smaller plastic letters and then help this child learn to comprehend big versus small. I would say pop with big M or pop with small M. This would be like expanding the circle to include adjectives or descriptive vocabulary. We tried option 2 and it went very well indeed.
Option 3) I could get some markers out and set them down just like I set the letters down and while drawing on paper with a red marker, I could say draw with red. This would be a system that is similar to the one we were just doing only we might call it Draw with Colors. I could teach this game to help my friend learn to use flexible self-generated language.
Option 4) I could teach my friend to switch roles with me so that he was blowing the bubbles and telling me which letter to pick up. This would help him learn to reverse roles in communication. It would also help my friend learn to use language to direct the actions of others.
There are many more options possible, of course, and I only point out these to give you a sense, as Dr. Miller gave me, of how helpful it can be to study the details of play routines and how these relate to learning. I often hear that what I do with children is so simple that it is hard for parents to think this simple. But when you take it all apart in this way, it is not so simple after all. If you are interested in thinking like this, you might want to pick up Dr. Miller's new book. If you get through Dr. Miller new book and want to really challenge yourself, try his first book. Then tell me what is in the second half.
Below is a video model of Pop with Letters that you can use to show to a child to teach this game: