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Tulsa Area Play Groups for Children with Special Needs

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Disability is natural. Regardless of a child’s diagnosis, he or she is still a child first. At times, health care professionals and educators get caught up in the “mental” age of a child with a disability, and lose sight of the importance of the influence of peers on actions and interests. This is the premise behind a research study being conducted by the speech-language pathology department at the Mary K. Chapman Center for Communicative Disorders on the University of Tulsa campus.

The Mary K. Chapman Center provides speech-language intervention and assessment as well as hearing assessments as a community resource and learning opportunity for undergraduate and graduate students who desire to enter the fields of speech-language pathology or audiology.

The American Speech Language Hearing Association (ASHA) allows certified speech-language pathologists to provide services in a variety of settings on either an individual or a group basis. Often speech therapy is viewed as a location that a child goes to in order to improve his or her speech or language deficit. Those involved in the “Playing around with Communication” research project decided to reverse this premise and take speech-language intervention practices to places that children go.

This research project’s two objectives were to: 1) evaluate the ability to increase the speech and/or language skills of children who engage in intervention sessions occurring in community based settings, and 2) evaluate parent perception of the effectiveness of the speech and/or language intervention with the community settings.

The research team recruited six children between the ages of 5 and 7 years old, with and without communication disabilities, to participate in a community “play group.”  The group consisted of children with normal language skills, children with articulation (sound) speech disorders, expressive language disorders, autism, and Down syndrome.  

Tulsa is a great city with many fun places to go with children. The playgroup went to the Oklahoma Aquarium, Tulsa Zoo, Purple Glaze, Home Depot, Joe Momma’s Pizza, Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa Rose Garden, Tulsa Air and Space Museum, and QuikTrip Plaza at RiverParks. All of the contacts made in the community were very receptive and warm to the play group visiting their facilities. 

Joe Momma’s Pizza was kind enough to give all play group participants a tour of their kitchen, share information about the brick oven, and give all the children some raw pizza dough to throw in the air. 

The Tulsa Air and Space Museum also provided a guided tour, even with the small number in the group, which was enjoyed immensely by all of the children in the playgroup. The best part about the children in the playgroup was that they were learning and improving their language through activities that all kids enjoy.

The research team found improvement in all the children with a diagnosed speech or language disorder. This is not to say that the children no longer have a speech or language disorder, but it was documented to be less severe. 

Speech and language skills for each child, even those without a communication disorder, were selected prior to the first session. Parents were asked to help in the development of the targets for their children. Each child was given a book made by the research team that described where the group would be going, and what type of activities would occur. The research team included language and sound targets in the books that were used to preview the activity, during the activity and to review the activity.

This is an inexpensive and simple project that all parents can do. It provides children with an understanding of what they will see and what is expected while on the outing. 

The playgroup also only had three rules: 1) be nice to your friends, 2) help each other, and 3) stay with the group. Simple rules are easy for children to process, understand and remember. In each storybook, one of the three group rules was reinforced.

The last page of each book included vocabulary words used during the activities at that specific location. The vocabulary words were selected on sounds being targeted and increasing each child’s vocabulary knowledge. Each playgroup session was only an hour and a half, so it was important to have the targeted sounds and vocabulary embedded into the activities, instead of stopping a fun activity that the child was enjoying to work on something that the child might find frustrating. The preview/review book was a great tool for families to use on their own at home or in other locations.

Following each community activity the children were asked whether they liked the weekly location, what their favorite and least favorite parts of the activity were, what their target speech or language goal was, and to give the name of one other person in the group. 

All of the children indicated that they liked each one of the outings, and throughout the nine play group meetings they could all provide the name of one other group member. 

Parents were also asked each week if they felt their child enjoyed the play group session, and if it was a good way for their child to work on his or her speech goals.  One parent stated, “He’s getting tired of regular therapy sessions, this is different, and he’s willing to come.” 

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