Letter from Barbara
I look forward to summer each year and hopefully you do too. My nine-year-old son with Down syndrome will be in third grade this fall, so summers are the only time I get to really play with him much anymore. Since most children with delays spend much of their days in early intervention programs, pre-schools, then elementary school, we parents need to take advantage of their summer vacations to develop a more active, playful relationship with them.
When I started using the ECO Partnership program with Mark seven years ago, I learned many strategies to use during our daily activities and playtime. Now that we are con-versation partners, I still use many of these same ideas. No matter what stage of development a child is in -- from nonverbal to staying in conversations -- you can use these strategies in everything you do with your child.
First, I would like to emphasize the most important thing I have learned about playing with a child with delays: "Play that produces stress or results in more failures than successes is more punishment than play." (Becoming Partners with Children, page 60) Learning this helped me when my son was only two years old, and it still helps me now that he is nine! If you keep this idea in mind when playing with your child, it will make your interactions much more rewarding for both of you.
When my son was younger I tried over and over to teach him to do puzzles that were too difficult, and to play with toys that were too advanced for him. He frequently responded by throwing the puzzles and toys around the room, or he simply ignored me and left to do something more fun. What was fun for typical children his age was more "punishment" for him. I learned to play in ways he could play and we both enjoyed each other much more. As he developed I gradually brought out these toys and then we played with them together.
Follow your child's lead. This idea has also helped me greatly during the past seven years. I have learned to watch my son closely to see what he wants to do and likes to do. Instead of insisting that he play what I think he should play, I do what he likes much of the time. (But not always of course!)
Adults often think we must direct and teach children what we think they need to learn, but many valuable interactions (and much learn-ing) can take place when we follow their interests and motivations. My son will talk and talk about things that are fun and interesting to him. I use these times to help him practice staying in conversations and learning new words.
Do what your child can do, then add just a small step more. (matching) When Mark was learning to talk I used similar actions and sounds, then added one or two easy words that he could try to say. I learned that although children often understand long sentences, they can't say them. When adults use fewer words and short phrases, we are showing them how to talk. Parents do this naturally with all babies and toddlers, but it is something we need to do longer with our children with language delays. Don't think of this as "baby talk" but as modeling developmentally appropriate speech, and it will be much easier for you to do.
Wait for your child to do or say something before you act or talk again. (balance) This teaches children reciprocal turntaking--something they need to learn to do with actions and sounds before they start to talk. Lots of practice in this early stage of communication development will help your child stay in conversations later. If I don't give Mark enough time to say what he wants, he likes to remind me. He recently told me I talk so much I give him a headache! (It isn't always easy for me to wait, but I didn't know I was that bad!) Most adults are so fast-acting and fast-talking that our children don't get enough time to do and say what they can. This is one reason children with delays often remain passive and quiet as they get older.
Keep your child for "one more turn." If we keep turntaking interactions going a little longer each time, this helps our child's attention span develop, and also helps them stay in conversations later. This is easier to do in the summer when we have more time to play with our child.
Be sure your child plays more with people than alone. If I see my son playing by himself for long periods of time, I try to get involved in what he's doing. Two of his favorite activities are reading books and listening to children's stories and song tapes. I enjoy stopping what I'm doing occasionally to read with him or sing along to the songs.
Too much time spent playing alone can contribute to "social isolation." This can be more noticeable in the summer when other children are playing together and often leave children with delays out of their activities.
If you see this happening to your child, get involved with all the neighborhood kids and join their play as much as you are able. We have a trampoline in our yard that is a good gathering place on sunny days. It's not unusual for seven or eight children to be playing on or around it at the same time. Mark is considered almost equal in this play. They have created some very imaginative, interactive games in which he participates. Two of their favorites are trampoline dodge-ball and soccer (Ed.Note: Be sure to supervise the trampoline at all times!).
Watch to see that your child is actually participating and not just watching. Play with the kids (and like a kid) and your child's communication will develop more over the summer and whenever you make time for play.