What is play?

perfect lines of large alphabet letters in red, blue, and green, sitting on a blue rug
I have really strongly moved away from writing an IEP goal for “play”. What do I mean? I mean things like this:

  • Play functionally with X number of toys for X minutes
  • Engage in cooperative pretend play for X number of minutes
  • Appropriately play with XYZ toys

Basically, anything that includes “functional” and “appropriate” and dictates HOW a child should play. Because that’s not play.

Play is, by definition, self-directed and for the purpose of joy. It is not what someone else thinks we should be doing. It is not for some practical purpose. It is not limited to one (neurotypical) way of interacting with materials.

Lining up trains is play.

Stacking and knocking down blocks repeatedly is play.

Waving a ribbon is play.

Filling and dumping a cup of rice, creating L’s out of Legos to stack on the corners of tables, jumping on a trampoline, sitting by yourself to examine letters for extended periods, linking little cars and big cars by yarn, sticking glow sticks in any spot you can find… It’s all play.

What is the purpose of forcing a child’s play to become something other than it is? To become “normal” and “functional”? (Who defines functional, by the way?) What do we think we are teaching? And what is the child learning?

I don’t know that I can answer “what we think we’re teaching”. I’m really not sure. Because everything I think is important can be taught and experienced through the child’s own play: curiosity, exploration, creativity, shared enjoyment, communicating your likes and dislikes, learning about the world… Imitation, language, and academic skills can all be modeled and experienced without forcing the child to switch from play to work. Because play done in a specific way with specific materials is work. So I’m not sure what the answer to that is.

But I do know what the child is learning: that the things they find enjoyable are not okay. That there is one way of being in the world, and they do not know it. That being themselves is not okay.

Do I think that most professionals or families have the intent to teach this? No. Do I think most students and children are learning that anyways? Yes.

It comes back to this: we need to re-think what skills we are teaching and why. There are often other ways to get at what’s important, ways that don’t involve shutting down a child’s unique way of being in the world. Dig deeper. Ask yourself: what am I really trying to get at? What’s actually important in this moment? How can our classroom environment be changed to better accommodate this need? How can we teach peers and ourselves to better accommodate this need or celebrate this difference?

Different doesn’t mean wrong. Different doesn’t mean it must be changed. Different just means different.

 

 

 

This is part two in a series on selecting what’s important in our special education classrooms. Check out the first post here. Future posts will selecting target goals and teaching social skills as a form of code-switching.

Selecting skills: But why does it matter?

blue Thomas train leading a line of toys that includes a broom... a shoe-less foot is peeking in to the edge of the frame.When people enter my classroom, they are sometimes confused. There is a lot that looks different from a typical classroom. A quarter of our room is filled with things that one would typically see outside: ride-along trains, cars, slides. Half of my class spends their days without socks or shoes. If we are in a large group setting, students may be seated at the table. They may also be doing something else in the back of the room, pacing near to the large group, or coming back and forth from the table. Independent work happens on the floor, standing at the table, in rocking chairs, next to squeeze machines. Students engaged in child-directed play may be stacking, lining up items, or scripting. Not only that, but you’ll find classroom staff delighting in these things, expressing joy right alongside the students.

People see this and think that I am permissive and lenient, that I don’t believe in my students, or that I am not teaching them.

Yet — I get good outcomes. Scratch that — I get great outcomes. My students master their IEP goals. My students develop a ‘functional communication system’. Their self-injury, aggression, and meltdowns disappear over time. They learn to tell someone no, to be more independent, and build relationships in ways that honor and support their needs & desires. My families are very happy with the learning that happens in our room, sometimes the first big progress that a student has made. My students and families trust me, which is even more important.

And this doesn’t happen in spite of the environment, but because of the environment.

My classroom environment respects neurodiversity. My classroom expectations respect neurodiversity.

Whenever we set an expectation in my classroom, I ask myself: but why is this the expectation? When we choose a skill to target for instruction: but why are we selecting this skill? I don’t just accept my first answer, but dive deep into it. Where did this expectation come from? Is it necessary for safety? Is it necessary for learning? Is there an alternate way?

Let’s take a look at wearing shoes in the classroom. Why do we insist on this? Is it because this is what we are familiar with? This is what the neurotypical students do? What reason would we have for pushing shoes all day? Is it necessary for safety? No. Students put their shoes on to leave the classroom. They put their shoes on for the playground. But in the classroom, it is not necessary to wear shoes in order to be safe. Is it necessary for learning? No, and I would argue that it is actually counterproductive to learning. If you’ve ever had an unmet sensory need, you would know what I mean. It can be one of the most distressing and distracting experiences, causing pain and discomfort for the entire time that it is unmet. I want my students to learn. This means meeting their sensory needs.

Similarly, with large groups — why do we believe that students can only learn or learn best when seated together in a group at the table or the carpet? Can the student hear my instruction when they are pacing behind our group? Almost certainly, and possibly better than they can when seated. Can they add to the conversation or take their turn with the materials even though they had to leave for several minutes and then return?

I don’t insist on greetings and closings when entering and leaving the classroom, much less eye contact. I make sure that I greet each of my arriving students with warmth and affection in a way that works for their personalities and needs. But they don’t have to return that greeting. They don’t have to look me in the eye. They don’t have to say hello or good morning or good-bye. Once again — is it necessary for me to insist they greet us? Does it have to look a certain way? What purpose does that serve? Why do we do it? If the answer is, in any shape or form, “because that’s what neurotypical children do”, then we need to step back and ask ourselves if that’s enough for something to be necessary. It usually isn’t. Instead, we can create a classroom environment that allows for and recognizes a much wider display of “what something looks like”. We can recognize as valid and beautiful the many different forms there are to acknowledge someone’s presence (e.g., what a greeting is). We can recognize that some days, students may need time and space upon entering the room. We can recognize that people move through the world differently. It’s not only okay, but beautiful and essential.

It’s not that I don’t hold high expectations for my students. We engage in real reading, real work with letters, and real writing. We learn about numbers, geometry, and measurement. We explore patterns. We do science experiments. We create art. We participate in teacher-directed activities. We work really hard every single moment of the day on speaking and listening. We are safe with our bodies and our friends.

It’s that I recognize that our world is better when our world recognizes that validity and importance of different ways of being in the world. And that is why we do as well as we do.

 

This is part one in a series on selecting what’s important in our special education classrooms. Future posts will feature conversation on play, selecting target goals, and teaching social skills as a form of code-switching.

The Cost of “Normal”, or Why Acceptance Matters

I have debated writing this entry for a couple of weeks — for any number of reasons. It’s raw, deeply vulnerable. And in putting this rawness out into the world, I risk so much. I risk people telling me that I’m wrong, that I don’t know myself, that my lived experience doesn’t matter. It’s too high, too verbal, too wordy, too much this, or too much that. I risk the cuts that come a thousand times over in life, the ones that will surely come from people who think they know me… But have only known the masks I have worn early and often. I risk the anger of those who uphold stereotypes, who push ableism both subtle and obvious, who create little boxes that only further systems of oppression. 

And yet — it is an essential risk, a jump that I must take, this long and wordy essay, because I think there is also value here, for those open to receiving it. There has certainly been value to myself.

I have been different since… always. I was a toddler who read books, real books, who loved grammar and phonics rules more than toys, who recited lines from The Little Mermaid many times over, who needed my schedule to be exactly right, my 4:30pm He-Man and exactly 3 items for dinner. No more, no less, or it wasn’t dinner. The end. 

I became a child who cried for an entire day when she lost the school spelling bee, even though I was just six, because spelling, words, letters — they all mattered that much to me. I got in trouble for interrupting teachers, for correcting them, for not following the social rules of the classroom — on every. single. report. card. Grade 1 through 12. I ate little of the foods my family prepared, choking down a bite here or there, sticking mostly to deli meat and chicken nuggets, over and over. Not one single vegetable, not one, and not that many fruits then either. I remember crying if someone didn’t use separate knives for the peanut butter and jelly. I had to sit a certain way, in a certain seat, still do. Clothing bugged me. Hair bugged me. Shoes bugged me. Socks? That was NEVER going to happen. 

My reciprocal friendships were limited, one or two who always left when they found other friendships to be more satisfying. I had exactly one birthday party with multiple peers of my age in elementary school. And it ended with me on the outside, always on the outside, as they played truth & dare, as they pranked me, as they mocked me, at my own party. I don’t think I had a friendship last more than a couple months, maybe a year, until late middle school. I rarely went to others’ houses, not even family. I wanted to be at home, where things were comfortable and familiar and routine. My home, my grandparents’ home, and that was it. I remember attempting to stay at my great grandparents and having to be picked up because I could not sobbing over my need to be. at. home. 

I remember these instructions, over, and over, and over: stop spinning, stop rocking, stop making those random noises… stop incessant interrupting… stop the endless talking about my interests… dress differently, more “together”, more “girl”. Remember to shower. Remember to brush your teeth. Be more social. Do more things. One of my closer friends at the time was certain that there was something wrong with me, in the way that I needed to line things up, the way I needed things to be the same, to the point where she even said something to my family. Teachers, too. Counselors. Many over the years. But it was clear that I was not ADHD, the most common childhood diagnosis at the time. And so, I continued on, no diagnosis, just “quirky” and “odd” and “weird” — depending on who was doing the labeling.

But I am not angry at my family, my friends, my teachers. They did the best they could in a time when people didn’t understand. Indeed, they did better than most, in allowing me my endless escape into novels, buying more items for my Titanic collections, and encouraging all of the alone time in the woods and trees that I needed. They recorded my favorite shows on VHS so that I could watch them over and over. They helped me find the exact soft pants that I needed and bought multiple pairs. But these things are not enough, not when an entire culture — your entire school — is telling you constantly that you are weird, you are odd, you are not good enough. 

And so, like many others, I learned to fake it. I faked it hard in high school. Instead of being the girl who always reads and stays at home, I was the girl that was involved in everything. I was the girl who talked and talked to everyone. I studied other people. I talked myself through all the rules that my family uttered, through all the things I saw other people do. I reminded myself to look at people, to say hello to people, to laugh when everyone else is laughing. I wore the clothes that my mom picked out for me for as many days as I could (before returning to literal pajama pants and flip-flops). I pushed myself to go to youth groups, to go to football games, to sign up join do do do! 

And all of that fitting in, all of that masking — it came at a cost. A deep and treacherous cost. There is a depth of lonely aching, of being certain that there is something innately wrong with you. That you must be selfish, self-centered, egotistical, to not be able to understand all of these rules. That there is something wrong with your need to rock, to stim, to make noises. That you must be unlovable. There is an exhaustion that cuts to the very bones of your being when your day is spent pretending to be someone that you are not. It is an exhaustion that takes everything, everything from you, and leaves nothing but gaping holes. It is a cost that left me laying on the bathroom floor, too many nights to count, with tears streaming down my face. Silent, racking sobs. Gasping for air, gasping for life. I remember sitting there on that cold tile floor and wishing that I could die. Considering how I could die. Wondering what would happen if I were to die. Thinking that, whatever it was, it would be okay, because at least I wouldn’t be alive. And it was an entirely preventable depression, one that I’ve only recently learned to connect to all that painful masking. 

Because there are only two other times in my life that I felt that incredibly low. The second was in my early 20’s, when I joined a staff at a school that was filled with similar aged young women. Except I don’t have many shared interests with a neurotypical same-age woman, as if that wasn’t clear already. I didn’t want to go out for drinks, or dinner, or any of those things. I just wanted to talk about teaching. I wanted to belong, but I wanted to belong as me. And I didn’t. I couldn’t. My passion for the last 13 years has been my students, and everything classroom. I collect information about teaching the way others collect subway maps or Lego models; I wanted to talk about that information always. It was my everything. And I was mocked. I was told, again, that I only ever want to talk about one thing. So I tried to be different… To hide who I am. To go get a coffee. To small talk and chit-chat and have lunch with my colleagues. And instead of feeling as if I belonged, I felt misery. That aching, haunting feeling swept back into my life. 

Again, that third time — I took a job as a coordinator, thinking that this was a job where I was supposed to talk about my passion with others. Guess what? It’s not. Coordinating is all about social skills, small talk, and “leadership skills” that get staff buy-in. I fell apart. Every day, all of my spoons were used up by noon, between phone calls and favors and meetings and persuasion and trying so hard to be “normal” and social and follow all the rules that make good leaders.  I don’t think my husband had ever fully seen me that way, so lonely and lost. I hope that I never enter that place again. 

You may be wondering — how in the world does this relate to being a teaching unicorn?

Because you must understand the cost. You must understand that the cost of masking, of faking it, of being someone other than you are — the cost is nothing less than laying on that floor and wanting to die. It is nothing less than feeling as if you will never belong, as if you will never be loved, as if you are worth less than dirt. I’ve lived through trauma, through physical abuse, and none of that abuse brought me as low as those months of masking did. Every time. It is trauma. It is a trauma that cuts to the very essence of someone’s being. 

You must understand what you are asking your students when you ask them to be neurotypical, whether their neurodiversity stems from autism, intellectual disability, or mental illness.

You are asking them to give up everything.
To leave behind who they are. 

To leave behind everything that makes them who they are. 

To become empty in pursuit of “normal”.

It is never worth the cost. It doesn’t matter how great they get at masking, whether they pull off a 4.0 GPA and a smile while doing it. They will be dying on the inside. 

This is why the world must change, not our students, not ourselves. Because we are all worth of love and belonging. But we are worthy of that belonging right now, as we are. Every day, we make a choice. Will our teaching uphold systems of oppression, or will it teach our students that they belong? Will the subtle things we say — the things we think we say with love — support them or cut them? The goals that we select? The curriculum we use? The ways we teach? We are teaching so much more than a skill. We promote acceptance or we promote trauma. It is that simple. 

I know I’ve made mistakes. I’ve made the wrong choices. I am sure that I have accidentally bought that pain to my students over the last decade, and I mourn for any and every time I may have. I use that mourning to do better. Because I never, ever want to be the reason that a child cries alone on the bathroom floor. 

P.S. I do feel like I should add a little note of gratitude to one particular high school friend, who knows who she is, one of my only lasting friends, who always accepted me and my Harry Potter obsession exactly as I am, who always will.