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.