Inclusion and Creating an Inclusive Playgroup

Wednesday's Special Education PTA meeting featured Trudy Marsh Holmes of Parents Helping Parents (PHP), speaking about how to create an inclusive playgroup for your child. Though her audience was exclusively parents of special needs children, her tips and ideas would work for any parent who wants to create a playgroup in which their child can learn better social skills and make friends, and who wants to have a home in which other families feel comfortable and want to visit.

(Trudy gave me permission to post my notes from her talk. Any omissions/contradictions are therefore my fault. Trudy was inspiring; warm, frank, and energetic. I highly recommend seeing her speak in person.)

Why Have Inclusive Playgroups?

Trudy remarked that we have the ability to create wonderful lives for our children. And it is important that if we do something wonderful for our children, we need to leave a trail so that others can learn from us.

If your child is ousted from a community, you are ousted from that community. Exclusion feels horrible.

Trudy's child is now twenty-three. There was no inclusion available when her child went to elementary school. The school said that her child could come play with the typical students during recess if Trudy would come supervise her child personally, then her child would have to go back to the Special Day Class.

So, Trudy decided to have a playgroup on her own since the school and neighborhood were not supportive.

Her child was six, but all the six-year-olds were in school, plus her child was more developmentally similar to three and four-year-olds, so she started a weekly morning playgroup at her house. (She used her respite hours to have a respite worker be with her child while she ran the playgroup.)

Trudy made sure the playgroups were wonderful, fun, and rewarding -- so much so that eventually the playgroup kids would come over spontaneously. (And she accepts that they didn't always want to play with her child; sometimes they wanted to see mom, or do the activities.) But they felt comfortable coming over to her child's house.

Her playgroup lasted for four years. It started out with two other kids, eventually there were twelve kids in the group.

Why did she do it? Why should we? We want exposure to kids who are developing typically so that our kids can learn from them. THIS IS WHAT INCLUSION IS ALL ABOUT.

When given the opportunity, most people are likely to embrace a situation that will benefit their children. And inclusion is both beneficial and enriching, for both typical and special needs children. This is true, we know this from studies. Inclusion is enriching because it improves children's capacity for understanding differences

We all have different dreams and visions for our children. We might choose to do inclusion because we want our children to go to college and fit in, or be social creatures in a social world, or create friendships with their disabled peers by observing how they are formed.

However, if they are always with peers with the same disabilities, it is not always possible to learn these social skills.

Why do we do inclusion through play?
• Repetition of experiences is a way of gaining mastery over them.
• Play is how kids organize and integrate life experiences.
• Developing creativity and increasing the child's repertoire of experiences
• Play is something often overlooked in educational planning for children in special ed
• Inclusion in a child's front yard, neighborhood and community, their natural environment, offers the best "Social Security"
• It builds friends (and advocates) into our children's lives besides their parents. People will look out for your child.
• It allows integration into your entire community as well as the special ed community

Your Child's Integrated Playgroup

Gives you the rare opportunity to do all the planning around your child's needs. You have an otherwise rare opportunity to:
• Facilitate
• Make unilateral decisions
• and customize based on your child's skills/needs/strengths (can choose areas in which your child excels OR needs help)
• If there is a child in the neighborhood who you don't think would fit in to the play group, don't invite them. (SR: However you could suggest to the parent that they set up their own playgroup to help develop that child's social skills)

Start slow so that you don't burn out, so that you can really observe your child's reactions and needs.

The Plan (you have to have one) "If you fail to plan you plan to fail" Plan for success!
• Logistics: How, where, when?
• A schedule is important
• How long? How often?
• You need other children, of course, to be models for your child.
• Use materials your child knows and loves.
• Be creative. This playgroup can be anything you want it to be. You might have to spend a few bucks. Good activity ideas, with backups.
• WIth the tools, you can do it, but confidence is the greatest tool you have.
• Talk to the other parents about your plans first.

• "Able-bodied" children's perception of disability is formed early in a child's development.
• So, with young kids, you probably don't need to be as worried about the kids as you do their parents.
• Kids don't usually notice disabilities unless they are really obvious.

Getting Started
• Write an invitation to other parents based on the kind of activities you would like to have.
• If there's nothing in it for the other parents/kids, they're not likely to come. NO WHINING ABOUT HELPING YOUR SPECIAL NEEDS KID.
• Be confident. Be positive.
• Examples: Video Game Night! Baking Party for St. Patrick's Day! etc.
• Mention your child's special need or not, your choice.
• What's in it for the kids/families? They are not going to necessarily come out of the goodness of their hearts. Tell the parents, "I am going to host this, you can have an hour to yourself, or stay and meet other parents in the neighborhood."

Make sure your invitation includes:
• Who are you?
• Why have you chosen to do this?
• What's in it for them?
• What is your expected outcome?

Here is an invitation example:
Hi, my name is Sharon Rosenberg and my son Joseph is seven. We just moved here in June 2007 and would like to meet more people and kids in the neighborhood. We have a trampoline and a pool, so if you think your child would have fun swimming and trampolining with us for an hour, please drop your child by on Wednesday afternoon at 3:00. Joseph looks forward to making new friends, and so do I.

Now You Have Kids Coming, What Do You Do?
• Create a plan
• Prepare schedules
• Write, post, & follow schedule so that the schedule is the baddie, not you.
• Incentive programs
• What makes them come back? Make it fun!!!!! Be silly, stupid, goofy, FUN FUN FUN!
• Give 'em two straws (no one ever lets a kid have more than one straw)
• Believe that this program will benefit all involved, not just your child
• Assign seats to prevent conflict

Focus on your child's strengths and "splinter skills." Give your child an opportunity to shine, if possible.

Legal Mumbo Jumbo
• You have to have Insurance
• Employment: DO NOT TAKE MONEY FROM OTHER PARENTS or legally you are their employee.
• Drop in or drop off?
• First aid, exclusions, allergies: ask! If someone is sick, do not let them stay!
• Fire & earthquake drills, injury prevention
• Hand washing!

Real Life
• Make schedules your focal point.
• Goals/activities will change with time.
• Challenges: Ability gaps, behavior, energy, don't let them immobilize you, even though they can be devastating.
• When you notice the spark of influence, it makes it all worthwhile!

Social Skills
• Keep the group small
• Provide appropriate materials to the skill/interaction desired
• Have enough materials for all (so that no one fights over the blue crayon -- have five blue crayons if you have five kids, five scissors, etc.)
• Plan activities that require cooperation
• Quickly reinforce specific desired behavior (in specific terms, not general ones: "I like how you colored with your blue crayon" as opposed to "That is great work!") KIDS LOVE PRAISE
• Praise is a great reinforcer/incentive; be on the lookout for other reinforcers

Other resources:
PBS Parents: Inclusive Communities: http://www.pbs.org/parents/inclusivecommunities/friendships.html

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