Play-based learning is providing opportunities for children with disabilities to demonstrate their individuality and independence, with the role of the teacher crucial in supporting the play, a researcher has found.
Play-based learning has been shown to be an effective way to support children’s learning when it is part of a school program, but little is known about its effectiveness for children with disabilities.
Dr Amy Claughton, from the School of Education at Federation University Australia, spent several months at a rural specialist school observing children with disabilities as they played, working with children, the classroom teacher, classroom aide and parents to gather information about the children’s play. Dr Claughton, who is a lecturer and has taught in a special education setting, completed the research for her PhD project.
She found that the children self-initiated play and investigated topics of interest that were meaningful to them.
She also discovered that play-based learning was spontaneous and self-directed, and gave children choice over the play they conducted in the classroom.
“I observed the students playing but I also got involved in their play and I asked them to communicate to me the different ways in which they'd like to play and enjoy play-based learning,” Dr Claughton said.
“One of the children used a video and he went around the room and recorded the things that he liked to play with, while others showed me bits and pieces of the toys that they like to play with or they took photos or kept things that they'd made so that I could take photos of - their contribution was a big part of my research as well.”
“The children used a range of resources such as blocks, clay, sand and construction materials to explore and represent their ideas. They showed purpose in their play, regardless of the style or length of play they were engaging in.”
Dr Claughton said the children, aged five to eight, quickly engaged in play-based learning and initiated play, and did not need to be told to get involved in the activities.
“They were able to do this themselves and they were also influencing and negotiating with each other as they played, depending on who they were playing with and the different rules around the play. Those rules were made by themselves so the teachers weren't interacting saying, ‘No, you have to let him have a turn,’ – they would figure out who gets to have a turn and why.”
Dr Claughton said research had been conducted looking at playfulness in education – where structured play was introduced to a classroom – but this moved away from spontaneous play and letting the children take the lead.
She said the role of the classroom teacher and other adults in the classroom was critical in letting the students self-direct their play.
“These adults were able to connect children to their interests, and spark an idea that children followed back towards spontaneous play,” Dr Claughton said.
“How children engage in play is particularly unique. I would encourage people who are teaching children with a disability to look for that uniqueness that they bring to their playing.”Dr Amy Claughton
Dr Claughton said there should be more opportunity for timetabled play and for teachers to be observing what children are doing during their play.
“There is an opportunity to focus more on behaviour rather than actions. Previously when we looked at play we were quite focused on the actions – how are they playing, what type of play are they engaging in and what does it look like? We need to look at the behaviour to see how they are showing self-determination and direction in their play, and if we start looking at that behaviour then we start to see whether or not there's more play happening.”