December 6, 2019

Faces of joy through playful learning with diverse intellectual abilities

Erika Lusky, guest author

Erika has worked for 25 years with students from elementary to post-secondary education in the area of Special Education, and is currently a Speech-Language Pathologist, Instructor, and Coach. She is passionate about creating quality relationships to foster agency and identity, specifically in disenfranchised learners. Erika is a thought partner and friend of Project Zero, instructing PZ-HGSE online courses and facilitating courses and study groups for our Summer Institute.

Facial expressions of intense joy and pain are indistinguishable – so how do we know for sure what’s happening here? Welcome to our little world and I’ll explain.

Act 1 (photo Erika Lusky)

Our little world exists in a public high school in Rochester, Michigan, and includes 15-18 year old students with developmental delays, teachers, paraprofessionals, and peer mentors. Peer mentors are general education high school students who have signed up for an elective course to assist and model positive communication, socialization, participation, and behavior strategies to support the engagement of students with developmental delays -- students who are are non verbal or limited language communicators. Students with limited language have access to an augmentative communication device to assist or supplement their spoken language.

As a Speech-Language Pathologist, I began to wonder how we might build knowledge and skills without a conversation. Embedded in my thinking of our expectations for students (see Creating a Culture of Thinking for more about this), I further wondered how we might set the agenda to encourage independence, perseverance, and curiosity.  I was intrigued by The Pedagogy of Play (PoP) project and was curious if we might achieve these goals through playful learning? I questioned: Do you need a formal event to initiate play? Does it need to be celebratory or ritual? I considered the conditions for learning with and from others. I decided to use the space and materials in our newly designed school maker space (inspired by Agency by Design) to support this exploration. 

In our maker space, we were engaging in an activity to promote language acquisition and use. The prompt was to create something that could talk. Some students created small creatures out of yarn; others chose to make a flag with paper towel tubes and recycled material.

Students dressing their voice (photos Tarra Dodge)
Requesting to lead (photo Erika Lusky)

A particular student began to create a puppet and the idea spread quickly. Several students began to make unique hand puppets. Their peer mentors noticed their interest in hand puppets and very quickly began to build a puppet theatre featuring the classroom teacher’s name. “Dodge Theatre" was later taken back to their class for further exploration.

Peer mentors preparing the stage (photo Erika Lusky)

While students had the autonomy and choice to create and suggest their own imaginative elements, this playful experience provided a bridge for the students across a variety of abilities to be a part of each other’s game.  Before you knew it, one at a time the students with limited language went behind the stage, alongside a peer mentor, and put on a show for the group. The language that came from these students that day was like nothing I've ever witnessed before. These students went on to transfer their "speaking" the next class period, with two teachers observing an increase in language and engagement.

Our students don’t always interact directly or emotionally with one another. During this experience, rather than seeing their peer mentors as a ‘helping’ resource, students felt friendship and belonging. Playful learning provided these students the opportunity to see the contributions of others and understand points of view in a slightly different way than through a conversation. Playful learning provided these students with the lessons of cooperation and give and take that we hope to see in the world. Playful learning brought back the excitement of learning with a contagious enthusiasm. We saw sparks of joy that invigorates the soul and promotes a happy and healthy life.

I wonder how else we might support and engage with these specific learners? I wonder how I might prime for playful learning for this diverse population and others in the future?