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Play to Learn

Teaching children on the Spectrum often requires thinking outside of the box. Sometimes, this means doing away with the box altogether! I like to take the approach of making learning fun. That way, while the child is playing, they are learning. I resist using the word “work” when I talk to my sons about learning activities. It’s not, “Let’s finish your work” – it’s “Let’s finish learning.” For example, when my son was learning about ocean habitats, we went to the Monterey Aquarium to complete the assignment. When the question asked, “Describe the motion of ocean waves,” he just looked out the window and saw the waves moving up and down – that was the answer. In another example, comprehension has always been a challenge for my son. He could read the words, but explaining with words was a different story. My daughter (who thinks a lot like me) had a great idea of having him draw what he read, because she knew that he loves drawing. Once the picture was complete, it was proof that he understood. Then, he could write about it. When he was much younger and not talking yet, there were so many things that he needed to learn – brushing teeth, putting on his clothes, bathing, and the list goes on. We made up dances and sang songs to help with learning the new skill. One that I vividly remember is, “Brusha-brusha-brusha, brusha-brush your teeth. Brusha-brusha-brusha, brusha-brush your teeth-now spit!” That was fun – especially the “now spit” part. They (both my sons with ASD) thought that part was hilarious. Singing the song took the place of counting brush strokes.

This was easier, when they were younger. However, now that one is a teenager and one is 11, I have to really think hard about making things fun. For my oldest who is homeschooled, I don’t even call it “schoolwork” because that word is a trigger for a never-ending meltdown of complaining. We just call it doing “schedule” and talk about fun activities that we are going to do. Still, it takes an enormous amount of effort – but it’s worth it. It’s like hiding puréed vegetables in meatloaf (not that my sons will eat meatloaf – it’s just an example). This topic comes to mind because of something I recently read about the importance of play in child development entitled: “The Power of Play: A Pediatric Role in Enhancing Development in Young Children” by the American Academy of Pediatrics. It states: “The benefits of play are extensive and well documented and include improvements in executive functioning, language, early math skills, social development, peer relations, physical development and health.” I wholeheartedly agree with this statement.

Even as adults, think about when you are learning something new and you are laughing and excited, even when making mistakes. You want to continue to learn for the sake of learning, because it’s fun! I know I find myself playing word games on my phone, just for the fun of it. Yes, it’s a brain teaser, but that’s not why I do it. I do it for the simple enjoyment. So, when your child is struggling to learn something new, think about how you can turn it into a game. How can you help to make the learning fun?

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