Most of us know that play is more difficult for a child with autism and that it is important to the child's development but what is it, exactly, about play that makes it important? How important is it as opposed to, say, direct instruction in language skills, social skills, or daily living skills?
Parents will often ask a question like, With a limited amount of time, are you really sure I should spend time playing with my child? I keep searching for ways to explain why play is so important. I saw the possibility of another way to explain this as I watched a video on Erica Smith's Blog.
On this video, Erica is demonstrating a kind of social musical play for young children created by a German composer, Carl Orff. The activity is highly structured but, by my definition, it is social play because the four year old girl, Morgan, has the choice of what notes to strike, she is enjoying herself and Morgan and Erica are clearly playing music together--each aware of and responding to what the other is doing. This game has all the elements that I look for in games for children with autism.
- Social reciprocity--an activity where both players are important to the fun and success of the game.
- Structure--enough structure that the child knows what to do and does not feel confused or anxious while playing.
- Choices--opportunities for the child to make choices from among two or more possibilities, thus allowing the the child to develop more and more ability to observe, analyze, and choose what to do moment-by-moment.
- Playfulness so that the child can enjoy and learn from the process regardless of the outcome.
Most musical training seems to be about teaching a child to play a predetermined set of notes at the exact right time in order to re-create a composition created by someone else. There is great value in this kind of training--in music and in all fields of knowledge. But this kind of training is not enough--particularly for a child with autism because playing an original composition is the real goal. Whether it is when a child combines two words in a novel way to create an original sentence, responds to a question with an original answer, or co-creates an original scene for a puppet show--anyone who loves a child with autism knows that these are the most cherished moments of all. Playing with a child in a multitude of ways offers the child with autism the opportunity to learn the art of original composition.