Aaron was just three years old when I met him. This was several years ago now. When Aaron's mom and I first started working together with Aaron, he rarely used words. He seemed to understand a few things that his parents said, like Go outside and Time for Night Night. He seemed to comprehend the name of some of his little movie characters, like Dora and Sponge Bob. He liked small toy characters, often holding one in each hand, especially when he left home. I started with Aaron by using toys and activities that already interested him and so Dora came under consideration right away. As I was teaching Aaron's mom how to play with Aaron, I would often break down the whole sequence of our play and tell her not just what I was doing but why I was doing it and what I was learning about Aaron as we played. I would talk through sessions as much as I do in the section that follows, explaining at length a game as simple as the one I show in the video model above.
One day, the goal was to introduce Aaron to this little pretend play idea: Dora, Swiper and Boots can climb up this little slide and then slide down. Up, up, up, Weeee! I introduced Aaron to the game with this single repeated phrase and action and did not vary what I said beyond that for a while. I chose the slide because I knew that Aaron was a little afraid of slides. This made sliding a powerful pretend play idea. Children like to pretend about slightly scary things. In the world of pretend, they are safe but can explore what is scary. I call these slightly scary play ideas, Safe Emergencies. I am always looking for ideas like this that might engage a child in pretend play because a child will often try to pretend a Safe Emergency idea even if no other pretend play idea interests the child. Pretend play skills will often emerge when these opportunities are provided--a notion that I first learned from Dr. Stanley Greenspan in his writings. For many children, the slide itself, tends to make this particular game work, perhaps because a slide has such a distinctive shape and what one does on a slide is such a distinctive activity.
This pretend play idea worked with Aaron. Aaron willingly started attending as I said, Up, up, up, Weeee! over and over while taking Dora, Boots, and Swiper up the ladder and down the slide. I was thrilled when Aaron spontaneously tried to take Dora up the ladder himself but he managed only half the action before disaster struck. The ladder fell over. I knew Aaron was ready to quit the game at that point because he could not coordinate the movement of taking Boots up the ladder and keep the precarious ladder upright. Before Aaron could bolt away, I put my hand over his and helped him take Boots up the ladder. Up, up, up, Weeee! I said, to let him know why I was holding his hand. He let me do this. The week before, Aaron protested every time I tried to help him do something hand-over-hand, so I knew that Aaron really wanted to learn how to do this. I soon let go of Aaron's hand and he tried it again himself. When he still needed help, he put his hand by mine so that I would help. He never looked at me but I knew he was making a request. I did not even model the word Help. I did not want to jinx the cooperative spirit. It was a triumph for both of us when Aaron finally could take a character up without help.
Up, up, up, Weee! I would say. Swiper's turn ...Dora wants a turn... Boots is next. Now I used a few more words as we played because I knew Aaron could listen to what I said. Since he was not struggling anymore with the motor planning task of taking each character up the steps, and, in fact, was doing this easily, I thought he might have some mental room left over for listening.
While teaching Aaron's mom about the sliding game, I spent time explaining how hard learning new motor sequences was for Aaron--something his mom had not observed because Aaron tended to move quickly away from any task that was hard for him to do. She did not see his motor planning difficulty because he looked coordinated as he did most things. I explained to Aaron's mom that for Aaron, learning a new motor skill was perhaps like when she first learned to drive. You can't see how hard it was to learn to drive once the driver has learned the skill. I told her that not talking too much while a child is learning a new motor task is helpful. The new driver analogy works here, too. You don't talk too much to a new driver. A new driver needs to focus on driving. Once driving becomes automatic, then the driver can drive and talk.
As the game progressed with Aaron, my primary role became narrator of the play, because Aaron could not do this. Pretend play is much more engaging if there is language to tie it all together, even for nonverbal children. Most three year old children narrate their own pretend play but Aaron could not do that. I still took characters up the slide as I played with Aaron, though, since I wanted to be able to add new ideas to the play and I wanted the play to be social. It was not a struggle to take turns in this game, although in many other activities, if I took a turn, Aaron would try to gather and leave with all the toys. Dora wants a turn. Now Boots wants a turn. I would say. Aaron waited and watched with interest when I took a character up. I think he wanted to see what I might do next. I was quite pleased when Aaron independently lined characters up in a straight row behind the ladder--as he had seen me do previously. This indicated a deeper understanding of what we were pretending than I had expected. Aaron spontaneously started to say the words too, uh, uh, uh, eeee. This was his version of Up, Up, Up, Wheeee. This, too, suggested that Aaron was really playing. I had not prompted him to say anything. In fact, I rarely prompt children to say words, which is a surprise to many parents. But I don't need to tell a child to talk if I pick the right game and the right words, because the child will want to talk. Talking will make sense to the child.
Mom and I were both very excited when Aaron said these words. Reciting words (or saying words when prompted) is not the same as using words to for real purposes, like to narrate pretend play. I reserve excitement for the words children say for a real reason--to comment, ask, complain, refuse. I was excited to hear Aaron's words, because I was showing Aaron how to narrate play with words and he was giving it a try. Narrating play is a real reason for talking and it is intrinsically rewarding--meaning that the child is likely to say words for this reason without the adult praising him or giving him a reward beyond naturally responding to what he or she says.
I stuck with this routine in the game a while longer because I could see that Aaron was learning and I could feel that he was engaged willingly and happily in the game. But after a few more turns, Aaron apparently found the game too repetitive and started to lose interest so I had to add something to the game. I added a new play element Boots is tired, he needs a nap. Goodnight Boots. Go to sleep. Shhh! I saw that this play idea caught Aaron's attention and made him smile. He put Dora down on her back to sleep, too. So, I said, Goodnight Dora, Go to sleep! Shhh! Again, Aaron couldn't narrate the play with these new words, so that continued to be my job but when I did it well, with words he liked hearing, he was clearly more interested in the play.
As I explained to his mom, I had to watch everything that Aaron did, or else I could miss my opportunity to be the narrator so I stayed focused on every move that Aaron made in the game and added words when this would make the play better. I did not add words simply to be talking because talking too would cause Aaron to stop listening. The words were used so that Aaron could enjoy the play more. Just that.
Aaron and I made the characters take naps and go down the slide for several more turns before I could see that Aaron's interest was again waning. I continued to add little variations to keep Aaron playing with me. I don't keep games going though if a child has lost interest and I can't find a way to make it fun again. I sometimes misjudge and add the wrong thing. With Aaron, I tried to bring a Pooh Bear character into the game to slide but Aaron pushed Pooh Bear away and would have left the game at that point except that I said Go Away Pooh Bear! He did not like Pooh Bear included but he liked the idea of verbally sending Pooh Bear away! It was not long after that session that Aaron learned to say Go Away! I created a Go Away game before the next time he came because he had shown so much interest in sending Pooh Bear away.
One of the things that makes pretend play so much fun for children is the power that the pretend world provides. It is important to show a child how powerful he or she can be when pretending. For example, I thought that Pooh Bear might make the play more interesting but Aaron did not agree. Because I supported his idea of excluding Pooh Bear, Aaron successfully made a rule in the game--Only Dora characters can play on this slide today. He did not fully understand what he had done, yet, but I knew that Aaron was going to enjoy being a rule-maker in the world of play. We would go on to share and negotiate rule-making power in many a game. In fact, recently, when I played with Aaron and was able to ask him if he wanted to change the rule in a board game, he answered, Yeah, maybe you should write it down, Tahirih, because you always forget new rules.
Back then, when we first started, I remember our slide game as a great learning session. I could not know then how far Aaron would go, and we never really know that with any child. But I did know that on that day, we had both learned a lot--which made it a great day. I had learned to understand Aaron better, in part by playing with him and in part by explaining what I was learning and doing to his mom. The game might have looked simple, but it was not. Just by taking three characters up and down a slide and laying them on their backs, Aaron had entered the world of pretend play for the first time! The key to this amount of learning was repetition and routine and the gradual introduction of new ideas. Predictability was the hook that drew Aaron into play with me. Once in, the gradual introduction of new ideas allowed him to learn more and more.
I don't use straight drill work, which was a surprise to Aaron's mom, when we started. She was expecting something that looked more like school drills when she brought Aaron to me. But play with this much repetition is a close cousin to drill. It is the exciting and more powerful cousin. Emotions are not highly engaged when one is practicing language but emotions are highly engaged when one is using language in play. In pretend play, the child actually wants to use new communication skill in order to make something happen in the play. With Aaron, he wanted to talk because narrating the pretend play idea made it more fun. He wanted to learn to tell people and things to Go Away! both in pretend and in real life. In play, the child practices language over and over but everytime he or she is using language as a communication tool.
In pretend play, I discourage parents from using praise when the child talks. I don't want the parent to say something like Good Job talking Aaron! because it will interrupt the flow of the play. Instead, I encourage parents to respond, respond, respond! Good night, mommy! I said to Aaron's mom. Aaron said igh. She took our cue and laid right down beside Dora and Boots.
Please read previous post as the two posts are related.