Tulsa Area Play Groups for Children with Special Needs

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.

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.”

“He’s doing something that interests him,” another parent responded.

Following the outing at Purple Glaze Studios a parent stated, “My child enjoyed today. He’s learning new stuff, learning to create and not destroy.”

Another parent of a child who is learning to use sign language told the research team, “She is actually saying Thank You!”

The Home Depot outing was a big success with both parents and the participants. “I like he gets to do boy things,” one parent explained.

Another parent stated, “This is good. My son gets to work on something else besides painting and drawing.”

Following the last playgroup meeting for the spring semester, four out of the six parents made a comment regarding how their son or daughter really enjoyed the interactions with other children.

This project was selected for presentation at the ASHA convention being held in San Diego, California in November 2011. This research project provides evidence for parents and speech-language pathologists that children can improve and enhance speech and language skills by just being children with a little support.

Parents should not hesitate to ask their child’s speech-language pathologist for specifics regarding target sounds or language skills and find way to incorporate them into activities that the family already does.

Children should be given the opportunity to be around their peers. Although it is true that an 8-year-old boy with Down syndrome may not be able to do math problems or read as an 8-year-old boy without Down syndrome because of brain development differences, who is to know if both boys would like the same superheroes or Disney characters or not unless they are allowed to share information with one another? Allowing children to interact with other children, providing information about what will happen and how long it will last, and limiting the number of rules to follow are good techniques for parents to use when out in the community.

If you are interested in having your child participate in a playgroup through the Mary K. Chapman Center for Communicative Disorders, please contact Dr. Sandra Wright, assistant professor, at 918-631-2903 or through email at sandra-wright@utulsa.edu.

10 Tips for parents with children with communication disorders:

  1. Be clear in your expectations: kids can’t always read between the lines.
  2. Get other kids involved! See if you can connect with other families and each do an outing once a week for a month.
  3. Preview what is going to happen and where. Use images availabe online to create a word document or power point that shows your child what will happen.
  4. Limit the number of rules your child must remember. Be consistent.
  5. Call locations in advance to see if there are special tours or events, and explain any disability that may be present so they are aware.
  6. Don’t be ashamed or embarrased if your child has a communication disorder: it is an opportunity for you (and your child) to teach others.
  7. Ask for help! If you feel uncomfortable with your child in a large group of other children, see if you can get some support help. Contact your local high school National Honor Society chapter; they have students looking for volunteer opportunities.
  8. Educate your child about the communication skill that needs to be improved:  empowering your child.
  9. Provide alternate ways of communicating (pictures, gestures, printed words) if you are wanting feedback from your child. Sometimes finding the right words, or saying the words right can be frustrating and cause a child to become less interactive.
  10. Take a few risks: it is okay to get dirty, fall sometimes, make mistakes, eat something we shouldn’t (who else has eaten a mud pie?), get paint on his or her clothes, etc. You might be surprised at what your child can do.

Resources for parents:

There are several websites with information and resources about speech-language intervention:

Books that support the use of “natural” or community learning opportunities:

Disability is Natural by Kathie Snow
Thinking About You Thinking About Me by Michelle Garcia Winner
Categories: All Kinds of Kids