Guest Blog: Building social bridges at NAEYC

This post comes to you from Marnie Norris, director of programs at Shane’s Inspiration. Earlier this month, she presented at the 2012 National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) Conference. Marnie’s session, titled Together, We Play! discussed how to use play-based techniques, including peer buddies, to integrate children with and without disabilities, support children with sensory and communication differences, and minimize conflict opportunities. Read below for ideas she shared as well as took away from the discussion.

At a major conference with thousands of attendees and a wide variety of sessions to choose from, you always wonder how needed your information is…how much is social inclusion on the minds of early childhood educators?

As the room filled up two weeks ago in Atlanta, it was clear that teachers, principals, and professionals need tools to support the social interaction between students with and without disabilities…interaction that can happen spontaneously in early childhood but not always consistently.

Here are few tips and tools that we shared with each other during our workshop:

1. Start ability awareness early…in Kindergarten, a book and guided discussion, followed up by consistent interaction through play, is enough (We Can Do It! By Laura Dwight, Susan Laughs by Jeanne Willis). At that age, we focus on the fact that everyone has a hard to and a can do. For some, the hard to may be walking or for others talking. Help the students to connect their can dos and hard tos! Together, we can do.

2. Turning the challenge into the tool…if you have a student unable to connect through play find out what he/she is focusing on (ex: my student does nothing but spin the wheels on the train…find a peer who loves playing with trains. Let the peer hold the train while his buddy spins the wheels as a start. Give them time away from the group and excess stimuli to explore trains together.)

3. Flexibility in group activities…if you have a student interested in but unable to interact with the group, isolate one or two of her peers and let them play as a small group. Once the connection is made with a smaller number of children consistently, she may be more drawn in to circle time/group play.

4. Grouping the students…if you have a few students with disabilities in your classroom, create play groups consisting of two or three students with typical abilities and a student with disabilities. Give the groups identities: Bears, Penguins, Butterflies. Let them use the playground or indoor space as a group to encourage social interaction in smaller numbers.

5. Sensory stimulation…many teachers spoke about students having tantrums/outbursts because of being over stimulated. Find out what your student’s sensory profile is: is he triggered by sound (if so, is it specific or the wall of noise), touch (too much light touch, too little deep pressure on their bodies), light/color, etc. If you can, have Mom and Dad share what triggers him at home. Then you can modify his environment to support the sensory needs: some students are under-sensitive to touch and need bigger movements, deeper hugs or weighted jackets to help them register the sensation.

Most importantly…keep trying! Creating awareness and understanding in students (and adults) as to how our peers who have differences communicate, feel and socialize will help everyone. Combine consistent play with that awareness and you have a powerful foundation for social bridges!

Playing together

Many children with special needs have difficulty adjusting to unstructured time, such as time on the playground. But after reading the Together We Play™ essays and speaking with parents and caregivers of these children, we know that the playground is an important place for children to be welcomed.

I recently came across a blog, Thin Places—Faith, Family and Disability, that discussed this topic. The author has a daughter, Penny, with Down syndrome. Penny started kindergarten this year and really enjoys it, but she sometimes has trouble sitting still and using her words. Penny’s teacher, however, is working closely with the author to ensure that Penny has friends.

“On Monday, though, Penny’s teacher took it to a new level. ‘The hardest time for Penny is on the playground,’ she said. ‘I think it’s because it’s such an unstructured time.’ So she’s decided to create a game time for Penny and a smaller group of friends. Usually the teacher would use that time to prepare for the second half of the day. But instead, she’s outside, making sure there’s a place for our daughter.

I spoke with a friend last night who has a daughter with Down syndrome who is also in elementary school. My friend was in tears because some kids had yelled at her daughter on the playground: ‘You don’t belong here!’ We talked for a long time about the difficulties of being a child with special needs, and the difficulty of being a parent of a child with special needs. She talked about the purpose of inclusive education, and she said, ‘I know that for my daughter to fit in means putting a square peg in a round hole. But I thought that inclusion was intended to make that round hole bigger.’ My daughter will not become a circle, but I’m grateful that the circle is becoming large enough for our daughter to fit in.”

Inclusive education is exactly what Shane’s Inspiration’s programming is all about. Their playground programming helps break down the barriers of bias toward children with disabilities through education. Check out what Shane’s Inspiration might be able to offer to your community.

Have you met Norm?

I am Norm. You are Norm. Your neighbor is Norm. According to I am Norm, a campaign designed by young people to promote the acceptance, respect and inclusion of youth with disabilities, Norm is everyone. And everyone has at least one thing in common: that we’re all different.

In January 2010, 20 young people from across the country–with and without disabilities–came together in Washington, D.C. to create the I am Norm campaign. All of the young people shared a goal of raising awareness about inclusion and promoting inclusive practices in schools and communities. Learn more about the creation of I am Norm by watching the video below.


Help educate your community and local schools about the importance of inclusion. One way to do that is to promote the I am Norm campaign. Share their website and videos on your social media sites, blogs, etc.

Accessible, but not inclusive

Many communities, schools and recreation centers strive to make playgrounds accessible for all. However, just because a playground is deemed accessible doesn’t mean that it’s inclusive. Rotary Miracle Playground in Dothan, Ala., recently experienced this. While their new playground was accessible, parents of children with disabilities felt the playground was unsafe because typically developing children didn’t know how to interact with those who had different abilities.

Education is vital to influencing inclusive play, which is why Dothan Leisure Services reached out to Shane’s Inspiration, a California-based national organization whose goal is to foster compassion through inclusive play. Leisure Services held their first “My Play Club” event on Saturday, Aug. 20, in which they invited children of all abilities to come and play together. Children with disabilities were paired up with typically developing “buddies,” and they played together on the playground, got their faces painted, and created arts and crafts.

According to the Dothan Eagle, Marnie Norris, director of programs at Shane’s Inspiration, said social barriers between children often disappear after interacting with each other. They begin to understand the differences, and any preconceived ideas or fears often disappear. Learn more about Shane’s Inspiration programming, and visit us on Facebook to see more photos of Dothan’s first “My Play Club.”