Adults often marvel as they watch children frolic on the playground centers. Children’s interactions appear effortless. There seem to be no barriers, no ego or self-doubt. If you want to play with someone, you simply ask him or her. It looks so uncomplicated. If a child is willing and able to partake in the fun, then there are bad guys to vanquish, princesses to be rescued and treasures to be found. A child’s imagination is the only thing placing limits on the exploration.
However, we also notice that this ease does not come without occasional bumps—those little tiffs that cause small faces to redden, bodies to stand rigid and angry words to escape the lips.
As adults, we think we understand the dynamics. But on the playground there exists a whole world outside the dichotomous phrases, “Do you want to play?” and “I’m not your friend.” For children who are faced with developmental or physical challenges, such as blindness, deafness, learning delays or limited mobility, the playground can be a lonely place. In schools, we adhere to the belief that these children will benefit socially and developmentally from interacting with their typically developing peers. We believe that all children have the right to participate in and have equal access to the same activities. Many of us also trust that these interactions encourage typically developing children to embrace greater acceptance, compassion and knowledge about diversity. All we need to do is provide the setting and our hopes will play out as expected. Right?
Researchers Linda Hestenes and Deborah Carroll offer a deeper look by exploring the play interactions of young children with and without disabilities in inclusive classrooms. They discovered that simply putting groups of diverse children in the same environment did not lead to resounding choruses of, “Do you want to be my friend?” Instead, children with disabilities engaged in more solitary play while the cooperative play was mainly reserved for typically developing children. The separation was not a result of internal bias on the part of the children. It was about ease of communication and interaction—about whether a student was both willing and able to partake in the fun. Participation for those who had difficulty “keeping up” slowly dissipated and playing alone became the norm.
The good news is that with a little forethought, structures can be implemented to encourage play opportunities for all children. Children—with and without disabilities—spend the largest portion of playtime absorbed in gross motor activities. Those include running, riding bikes, swinging, climbing and jumping rope. Meanwhile, there was also proportionally less time for sensory activities like sand and water play. So the researchers found that providing opportunities for gross motor play is likely to increase inclusive play. Also, the presence of a teacher helps greatly. Allowing children of varying ages to come together can promote fruitful engagement as well.
Finally, increasing the time children with and without disabilities spend together off the playground further aids acceptance and promotes familiarity. Understanding diversity takes time. Typically developing children who are taught about various disabilities appear more willing to play with peers with disabilities. When we talk with our students and children about learning and physical differences they begin to make accommodations based on this knowledge. And a little knowledge can open up the door to other worlds, worlds in which treasures are waiting to be found.
Wellbrock is an early elementary teacher working with both deaf and hearing students in New York City.