A refreshingly short blog post today as i’m sharing some news! My illustrated Call to Play is now available online to view. One of the first posts on Play Radical was the first version of this piece of writing and I’m so excited to share this update, it also features a series of my drawings and all adds up to something I feel pretty happy about!
There will soon be printed copies of available for purchase (I’ll be keeping the cost as low as i can). If you’re interested in securing a copy ahead of time please feel free to drop me and email at firstname.lastname@example.org, otherwise keep an eye on my website/social media for updates!
I’ve recently had the opportunity to expand my practice into what was a new area for me; consulting with children. In some ways it wasn’t new area at all; ongoing consultation with children is a part of my everyday practice; I’m always seeking to get to know the children I’m working with and learning about their interests and needs and, if you work with children you likely do this too, perhaps without even thinking about it in those terms. But when we talk about a “Consultation” we do mean something slightly different, and those differences can make it feel like a whole new and intimidating task.
A Consultation differs from those everyday inquiries in two key ways. Firstly you are seeking specific information within a specific time frame and secondly you are bringing in an outside agenda to your interactions with the children.
Thinking about how to do this in an effective and non-tokenistic way bought up a whole set of questions:
How do you consult with children in a meaningful way, for the children involved and in terms of your agenda?
How do get information that genuinely comes from the child?
How do you communicate what you want from them and… What are you actually asking?
Throughout this work I’ve thought about, explored and discussed these questions and have come up with a few different ways of trying to answer them. These ideas have informed the sessions I’ve designed and facilitated for children and young people so far. These have been for a few different organisations and have been largely focused on hospital waiting spaces and how the child’s experience of this space could be improved but has also been relevant to some work I’ve been doing with a group of children around the play spaces in their school.
When I put all this together I come up with something like a work in progress methodology! Here’s what it looks like:
1.Interrogate your Agenda!
This is my starting point. I notice two big assumptions that we tend to make, especially when asking big or complex questions. And this kind of self-interrogation can help avoid both.
The first is simply that we assume that we know exactly what we’re asking or looking for from an interaction when actually we tend to pile up a lot of superfluous information without even thinking about it.
The second is perhaps a little more complex. It’s when we assume that the people we’re communicating with have all the tools to interpret what we are saying in the way we are saying it. People tend to find it quite easy to switch their communication or language style for younger children, but, when it comes to slightly older children and teenagers’ I’ve seen adults get a bit stumped. It may be that they’re self-conscious or nervous in front of an audience who so often get a bad rep, but I also think there’s an element of conflating explaining things clearly and simply with ‘talking down’ to people. Which isn’t necessarily true.
I start by breaking down what I’m thinking and talking about into as few key concepts as possible. In a consultation this is likely to take the form of questions. If you can keep these key concepts at the centre of what you do and say, then you can make it relevant for any group. Start simple and then build on that if necessary, but often, you don’t need to do this in a formal way. The building and going deeper comes from the unplanned interactions you have during the process.
I find that creating a graphic breakdown is a good way of going through this thinking process myself, and, it’s also a valuable tool for supporting communication and understanding for the children you are working with. For children with learning difficulties and/or cognitive and language impairments having visual communication support can also be essential for access. I draw, so have a nice easy way to do this, but putting together some photos or symbols works just as well, and possibly better in some contexts
2. Find ways to make abstract ideas tangible
If you’re asking children to think about something that they can’t see, or touch or hear in that physical space then find a way to link it to something they can see, touch or hear. When you ask someone questions about how they experience something or how they want to experience something then you’re asking them to tap into their instincts about feeling and doing. That’s difficult to do just through thinking, especially for children. For consultations I did around waiting spaces in hospitals I created a ‘waiting space’ in the room using plastic sheets and chairs, it wasn’t particularly complex and wasn’t as effective perhaps as being in the actual space, but it made the idea of a physical space where your sit and wait more tangible to the children in the room. They could pretend that space was a waiting room and then think about what it should be like rather than do all that in their head. My thinking is that this will encourage more authentic responses.
3. Get them doing
An unfamiliar adult asking a group of children questions, especially when they might be introducing quite new or complex ideas, is potentially quite an intimidating figure. If the children feel under pressure to please or say the right thing, they’re less likely to give genuine responses. Getting the children doing something, and even joining them in that task can help ease that pressure. When children (and probably adults too!) are engaged in a practical and/or creative task you have an opportunity to ask questions and tease out information in a more natural way. The activity/tasks will come from the ideas you’re consulting on, this is an opportunity to be creative and playful. Focus on getting the children engaged in something first and then, when they’re a bit more comfortable you’ll have an opportunity to ask questions.
4. Have multiple ways of participating
Following on from the ‘getting them doing’ point, that ‘doing’ needs to have multiple entry points or ways of engaging. Different children will participate and communicate ideas and feelings in different ways. Building this into your session creates a more inclusive environment as it allows you to facilitate a space with children/young people with a range of needs and abilities. To do this you can think about scale, perspective and ways of expressing self. If you have a big collaborative creative activity planned you an also set up a smaller version that a children can work on alone or take to a quieter area. If you have an activity planned using written words and images, make sure there’s also an option for children to draw or even record their voices (most smart phones have the ability to record audio). Some children will stick to one thing throughout and really commit to and enjoy it. Some will try everything systematically and some with jump erratically between everything. Having different options and flexibility will make your sessions generally more interesting and stimulating but it could also enable a child to participate who wouldn’t have participated at all if there was only one option that just didn’t fit for their way of thinking or communicating.
5. Ask questions based on the children’s actions
Pay attention to what the children are doing in your session and how they’re interacting with the activity and ideas. Then ask questions based on this and listen to their answers! It’s easy to be really focussed on that information you’re trying to get but it’s more likely to come out in the flow of a conversation where both parties are engaged and listening than an interrogation. Link their answers to what you are consulting about for further questioning. Always start at the simplest level and then go deeper/more complex as appropriate depending on the child.
It might look something like this;
You: Wow, I love all these animals! Is that a dog you’re drawing?
Child: Yeah, its my dog from home
You: Ahh, do you think people would like to see a picture of your dog?
Child: yes! Animals make people feel happy
It might stop there, or, depending on what your consulting on there might be an opportunity to take it further and investigate that child’s motivation or thought process. But I think you’re more likely to find those genuine bits of insight through this kind of questioning. Which leads nicely to point number six…
6.Prioritise authentic responses over amount of information.
This one is pretty straightforward but is maybe one of the hardest to do, our adult under-pressure instinct can be to push for as much information as possible but try and keep this in mind. You’re there for the children’s ideas and input whatever that is! Record everything as truly and thoroughly as you can but don’t focus on quantity at the expense of authenticity. I’ve also found that things that have maybe not seemed that directly ‘useful’ at the time later become an important part of a bigger picture. It’s also a part of respecting the children you are working with which leads nicely into my final point…
7. Be honest
Find an honest and clear way to explain what it is you plan to do with the information the children are giving you. This is important form an ethical perspective alone but also, if you’re looking for authentic responses from children then this needs to be an honest exchange both ways to work. This is also an opportunity to let the children know that you value their input and ideas.
I wanted to share these to hopefully help others working on consulting with children, but, equally, to open up a conversation. This is still a very new area to me, but it feels exciting and I’m keen to learn and explore more. I’d love to hear from anyone reading this about their thoughts and experiences. Comment below or drop me an email at email@example.com
written about the importance of recognising and valuing different forms of
communication and the need for us to allow for expressive as well as functional
communication. In this piece I’m going to take a specific look at language as a
form of expressive communication and in particular what this can look like in
the play of autistic people.
For most people language as a form of expression is
something that is encouraged; writing poetry, prose and music is not only
valued and celebrated but considered an act that is essentially human. This is
often forgotten when it comes to autistic children where “non-functional” language
can get brushed aside by surrounding adults as not meaningful, worth listening
too or in some cases even seen as damaging to the child. But autistic people
should be allowed and encouraged to enjoy and play with language just as their
neuro-typical peers are. In trying to prevent this use of language we are
denying an individual a culturally and historically significant part of being
human. I would also argue that playing with language is one way in which it can
become meaningful to an individual. Therefore as people are most comfortable
and content when able to communicate in a way that is meaningful to them,
limiting this playing with language is only going to hinder their ability to
communicate and be heard.
Before I jump in, I want to define a few words I’m
going to be using in the rest of this essay, these are words commonly used by
autistic people, allies, parents and professionals alike. The basic meanings
people use don’t tend to vary that much but the way people approach or
understand each one does. These definitions won’t be exhaustive but will
hopefully give you an understanding or what I mean when I use these words.
This word comes from ‘stimulatory’ in
“self-stimulatory behaviour”. It’s not just autistic people who do this, but we
tend to do it particularly often and it can fulfil many different functions. We
also do it fantastically well. It can help regulate the senses, manage anxiety or
other difficult emotions, be a part of feeling excited or joyful or be done
simply because it feels good. Stimming usually takes the form of a repetitive
behaviour that engages one or more of the senses such as rocking, jumping, hand
flapping and humming.
This is a form of communication where someone repeats
phrases or words they’ve heard. It can be immediate; you might say to a child
“do you want to go on the swing” and they might say “swing” back to mean yes, where
another child, not using echolalia, might just say “yes”. Or it can be delayed,
with phrases or words repeated back moments, hours, days later. This could be
because they’ve been processing what was said during that delay, or they might
be using what was said before to convey meaning in that present moment. Either
way it might look like the child coming up to you an hour later and saying, “do
you want to go on the swing” and meaning “I want to go on the swing can you
There are two main kinds of scripting, echolalic scripting and social scripting, although they cross over. Social scripting is using learned or repeated phrases to navigate social situations. The kind I’m going to be talking about here is echolalic scripting which I would describe as where echolalia and stimming meet. People will use lines from films, tv shows, books, songs, conversations they’ve had or overheard to ‘script’ with. They may repeat long streams of dialogue or a short bit over and over. This can be for enjoyment, self-expression or as a way of engaging with someone. It’s common for people to draw on a bank of learned phrases or dialogue (‘scripts’) which they associate with a certain emotion or situation when they find themselves experiencing that emotion or situation.
Now let’s get into the serious play stuff.
Poop Jokes for
Of the 16 play types described by play theorist Bob Hughes, what
I’m talking about here fits best, although not quite snugly, into the category
of ‘Communication Play’. Hughes defines this as;
“play using words,
nuances or gestures for example, mime, jokes, play acting, mickey taking,
singing, debate, poetry”.
how some kids just love to talk about poop, sing about poop and call you a
poop? That’s a form of communication play. Ever had the pleasure of listening
in on a bunch of kids making up format-defying knock-knock jokes? Also
communication play. What about the kid in a corner talking to the puppet on his
own hand? Communication play! (also; me for the first year of secondary
school). When I talk about playing with language, I am referring to a kind of communication
play which, when seen through an autistic lens can fracture into multitudes of
shapes and forms.
In spite of their wonder and complexity these forms of playing with language often go unnoticed or dismissed; especially when the adult’s viewpoint is skewed by the “functional language only” bias discussed above. If a child who uses language isn’t using words to communicate in the acceptable or ‘correct’ way, then it can be presumed they are doing that out of ignorance. When actually, they may be using their words exactly as they intended, you just don’t have the tools to recognise or to interpret it.
To help with this, I’m going to take a look at
some of those shapes and forms of autistic wordplay that I’ve observed and experienced.
Talking as Stimming
Have you ever observed someone rolling a word around their
mouth like a gobstopper? Most recently a conversation I was having with a young
person came to a standstill as the word “booth” caught them. They elongated it,
dragging out the ooooh and shortened it, expelling it like a cough. They
altered the pitch wobbling it in the middle, smiled and giggled. This is where talking
can be a form of stimming; more about sensing than communicating. Try it now; take
a word and say it out loud, say it in your head whilst imagining saying it out
loud, mouth it, taste it, spit it out quickly, stick out your tongue with it
balanced right on the tip, almost falling… pull it back in, explore the entire surface,
look for hidden cracks and fractures, get inside and discover what it’s really
made off. Imagine doing all off this and not feeling silly or self-conscious,
imagine this being something that brings you immense joy and satisfaction and
then being made to feel silly or self-conscious.
As stimming can be used to fulfil a range of different needs
talking as stimming is not always going to be about play, but it can be,
particularly when the person stimming is relaxed and if they are happily responsive
to or engaged in someone else joining in. What may start as stimming as a
reaction to anxiety about being in a busy playground may become playful as it
enables the child to relax and then morph into a part of the child’s play as they
try out new words perhaps ones which relate to that which is happening around them.
A child may smile and squeal as another speeds past them on a scooter a little
closer than expected, and then beginning vocally stimming, saying ‘oh dear watch
out oh dear watch out oh dear watch out” over and over again. To an outsider,
based on the words and repetition alone, it may seem like the child is
distressed but actually it might be a humorous comfortable and playful reaction.
If the above scooter-scenario happened to
me right now I can guarantee my brain would shout ‘shocked and appalled,
shocked and appalled, shocked and appalled.’ Just typing this is making heart
is beating a little faster and a goofy smile appear on my face. It’s very
unlikely I would actually be shocked and appalled, but this phrase is something
my brain always goes too, likely because it amuses me. When I’m on a playground
most of the time I would resist saying this aloud but if it was a child I knew,
who also stim-talks I probably would, and it might become a playful exchange.
Anyone whose spent enough time around autistic people will
probably have had the same conversation over and over again. Or will at least
think they have. It might be exchanging the same few lines of dialogue from an
episode of Thomas the Tank or it might be lines that you’ve learnt from the
other person over time from an obscure sci-fi movie you’ve never actually seen.
Someone might have a set of questions they ask again and again to get the same
answers from you. Much like talking as stimming there is no one reason people
do this, but it can be a part of play or a way into play with another person. It
can also be a way to establish communication with someone to enable a different
kind of play, or an invitation to bring someone else into the script.
When at its most playful this kind of scripting becomes subtly
anarchic. You may find yourself in what you think is the same conversation but
if you pay close attention there are small changes being made, little
explorations and experiments. It may be the words themselves or the way they
are delivered. The more you get to know someone the more you might find you can
introduce a little anarchy yourself, you might change a word or mix in another
concept. If the other person isn’t ready for this, they may well ignore it,
that’s okay. A young person I know scripts with SpongeBob Square pants and a
lot of the time they will ignore if I try to introduce a deviation. But on occasion,
when they loudly sing “who lives in a pineapple under the sea” and I reply “Winnie
the Pooh” (to the SpongeBob tune) it stops them in their tracks. They’ll give
me a look that says; ‘challenge accepted’, and then we’re playing. We go back
to the beginning of the script, both curious about what’s going to happen next,
this time when I respond “SpongeBob square pants” it’s somehow funnier than the
deviant version. This can go on and on and build and build. Imagine phrases and
words as building blocks that are being stacked higher and higher in a tower; they
can be knocked down suddenly, pushed slowly, intentionally picked up and placed
upside down as an experiment to see if they will remain standing. The
anticipation of a fall and element of surprise is part of the fun, but so is the
different ways you can build, different colour and shape combinations. I’m not
quite sure how to cram humour into this metaphor. But that’s there too, some of
those blocks are real comedians.
For me this is the ultimate form of autistic word play. It can involve everything I’ve already written about here and so much more. It’s a perfect example of the idea of the sum being greater than the parts. The parts are those echolalic words and phrases, bits of scripting, intonation, pitch, speed, mutations, hums, shouts and whispers. The sum is a kind of audio-collage that contains all these parts but is heightened and expanded by the interactions between them. This can be solo play or collaborative. When it’s collaborative it’s neither monologue or dialogue but something else altogether. The player(s) will cut and paste concepts together, looping, repeating and rearranging. From the outside this might seem inscrutable or completely random, but it’s likely neither if you’re able to tune in; something that will take a lot of time, listening and detecting for most.
There are a few things that fuel this kind of play; sharing and exploring particular interests or ideas, making connections, playing with social conventions and expectations and humour. The interest is often what starts the play off; chat about trains, Dora the explorer, road signs. Things which may seem mundane to someone who doesn’t share that interest but are a source of joy and inspiration to the individual. The connections are made through that out of the box or unexpected thinking, referencing another interest in an unexpected way. Exploring and discovering connections between things is something that is pleasing to many autistic people. When it comes to social conventions, despite popular belief, it’s not always the case that autistic people don’t recognise social conventions, often they just don’t see the point of following them or doing so causes stress and discomfort. For a child who spends all day at school trying to follow other people’s rules that aren’t intuitive to them, coming up with different answers to the questions “how are you” and acting it out with someone over and over might be very enjoyable. Finally humour, perhaps the hardest thing to try and explain, because our personal sense of humour so intuitive. But there is definitely an anarchic, surreal and abstracted sense of humour that a lot of autistic people share and that can be a key part of this kind of play.
these are new ideas to you, well, that was probably a lot to take in. So I want
to leave you with a few simple things you can keep in mind to facilitate and enable
this kind of play and creativity.
A lot of people find repeated conversation, particularly questions
annoying. If you feel that way then that’s okay, you’re definitely not alone. What
is not okay is to treat the person who communicates and plays in this way as a
nuisance. If you can’t engage then find a way to be honest about that, it might
mean simply saying; “I’m sorry, I can’t do questions at the moment”. It may feel
blunt or insensitive but its more damaging to act as if the person has done
something wrong by ignoring them, talking over them or doing things like
rolling your eyes and tutting. Feeling like the way you instinctually communicate,
or play is wrong is extremely damaging to the individual. It’s also good to
remember that autistic people spend a lot of time adapting to the way non-autistic
people communicate and being expected to do so without question.
AAC & expressive
When someone uses a method of adaptive and augmentative communication (AAC), such as sign, sign assisted speech, pecs or a digital text to speech programme, the focus on making sure they use it correctly- where correctly means functionally- tends to be even heavier than with speech. Remember that they may use it for expressive communication too and they should be allowed to do this.
There’s a really easy way to engage and play with someone
who communicates using echolalia and scripting; learn what they are talking
about! It’s all already out there for you, often just a YouTube search away. Learn
who Patrick or Peppa or Dora or Oliver is. (pink talking starfish best pal of SpongeBob
SquarePants, Pig, Spanish speaking young girl with monkey friend, train friend
of Thomas). Seeing a kids face light up when they realise you understand
something about this world that they love and understand through is pure joy.
Language can be a tool of play as well as pure communication,
the term ‘word play’ is familiar to most of us, but the fact that it can mean
so much maybe isn’t. Next time you come across a chid stim-talking, scripting and
collaging… slow down, listen and see if you can tune in. If you’re lucky you
might even get an invitation to join.
In play work we talk a lot about permission and in my role I definitely spend a lot of time giving it. Sometimes it’s something simple, just a “yes, you can use that” or “yes, you can climb that’. Sometimes it’s a more complicated “yes if” or maybe a “tell me more….” Sometimes children aren’t just seeking permission but guidance. Sometimes they come to the playground and just can’t stop asking permission because they’re not used to so much freedom. Sometimes someone might just want permission to talk and share something with you. A very common scenario, and a personal favourite, is when someone isn’t really asking permission at all; like when a child demands to know if they can triple back-flip of the roof of the shed or tip a bucket of water over your head. Usually this will be something they perceive as either risky or rule-breaking and often it’s a test of who you are and what kind of relationship they’re going to have with you. And, though it’s probably not going to be a straight up yes, with a bit of creativity it usually doesn’t have to be a hard no. Taking a child’s request seriously shows them you take them seriously and so respect and value their ideas. This creates a relationship where they’re more likely to share their ideas and play in a freer way. Of course the other side of giving permission is asking for it, and that’s what I want to explore a little more here.
Imagine you’re observing a play session, you notice one, very determined child, chasing another holding a raggedy straw hat. The child being chased doesn’t look like they are having fun and they are starting to get angry. You walk over and figure out that the first child is trying to make the other wear the hat, the child doesn’t want to because it’s a super gross hat (you secretly agree; it’s always a super gross hat). You step in to explain to the first child that the other doesn’t have to wear the hat and it’s better to ask the other child and listen to their answer. Both children are upset but the hat-fiend apologises and you (forever a martyr) ask if they’ll put the hat on you. The first child feels confused though. Perhaps because yesterday, when they were upset because another child kept touching their hair, the grown-up said to ‘be nice and let them’ and when they go to grandma’s house they have to give her a cuddle before bed even though they don’t like how it feels.
Always ask. Adults often don’t ask children permission, and they should. Asking doesn’t have to be verbal, it might be using a symbol or a gesture or simply giving a clear opportunity to say no. Asking permission isn’t just important to your relationship with the child in the present moment, it is also part of a responsibility we have to model positive boundaries and good use of consent for that child as they continue to grow and navigate new situations and relationships.
Disabled children will likely have had regular contact with medical and healthcare professionals throughout their lives and so will be used to strange adults investigating their bodies and minds in a way that many non-disabled children won’t have. If they have personal care needs they will also be used to adults of varying degrees of familiarity attending these. This just makes it all the more important to be clear and conscientious about asking permission when physically engaging with a child. It is vital to respect the child’s person-hood and ownership of their body to enable them to distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate kinds of touch.
There is a troubling behaviour I see over and over again where adults think that it’s okay to invade a child’s space or touch their body. When I worked in a school with profoundly and physically disabled children I would often notice that supply teachers or new staff wouldn’t hesitate to touch a child’s head or shoulder or lean on their chair within seconds of meeting them, not even giving the child time to process that the person was near them. This would infuriate me, it’s almost as if the more vulnerable an adult would perceive a child to be the less need they would have to ask permission. This could be down to an assumption that the child can’t give permission or an assumption that the adult doesn’t need permission. I think in part this behaviour is a result of people not knowing how to navigate relationships where communication is non-verbal. Not knowing how to communicate with someone can often lead to ignoring or disrespecting their person-hood. But with time and patience we can always find a way to ask.
Two rectangles side by side. The first is green, it has a line drawing of a closed fist with arrows indicating in moving up and down. It is titled ‘yes’. The second rectangle is red and has an image of a closed hand with index, middle and thumb touching and then opening. it is titled ‘no’.
Establishing a ‘yes’ and ‘no’
In any relationship establishing a ‘yes’ and ‘no’ is key. When meeting a child for the first time this is part of my role as a play worker, it’s something I always prioritise, particularly as a lot of the children I work with may not say yes or no in the expected or simple way. In a play environment there are plenty of opportunities to do this. I’ve broken these down into four categories, although I’m sure there are many more.
This can be a part of introducing yourself to someone, asking ‘can I join you’ when a child is playing or sitting somewhere can tell you straight away how someone communicates consent. If they say no, or walk or turn away, then respect this. It doesn’t mean they won’t want to spend time with you at some other point and if you respect their response in that moment they are more likely to want to do so. You might also ask “can I show you this” or “can you tell me about that”.
For a child who is maybe shy or who you’re unsure about how to communicate with; offering them a clear choice of something to do can be a fairly low pressure way to engage with. Make sure you keep the choices you offer simple and low impact. Use options that are visual and concrete rather than abstract. For example “Do you want to use this parachute?” rather than “Do you want to play a game outside or go to the art room”
Expressing approval or dislike
Watching a child to gauge how they interact with and respond to an environment can give you indicators of how they may communicate ‘yes’ and ‘no’. This is perhaps a less direct method but for someone who communicates non-verbally you may need to think a bit wider about how to ask permission. Recognising how they express liking or disliking something can help with this. For example you may see a child wrinkle up their face and pull their head back when there is a loud bang. Later on when you approach them with a fluffy puppet they may wrinkle their face again, perhaps you could sit down within their eye line without the puppet and see how their body language changes.
Asking someone who knows the child already
If you’re getting to know a child who has complex communication needs it can be helpful to chat to someone who knows them better. Just make sure you don’t take what they say as set in stone. Because every individual relationship is different. But finding out some basic information can help you avoid doing particular things that might trigger behaviours or make someone uncomfortable or scared.
Permission is an ongoing part of any relationship and works both ways. When asking permission you’re also giving permission to someone to say yes or no. You’re creating a space where they can have autonomy and feel comfortable to express themselves.
Permission in the Play Space
Permission and consent are key functions of communication and central to enabling free play. Permission allows a child to explore ideas and experiences, in the best kinds of play spaces children should feel that they already have permission to be themselves and should be encouraged to ask and seek consent from other children and adults in their joint play. As play workers, as carers and as adults it’s our responsibility to keep listening, observing and learning so we can create the best spaces and experience for children in our care.
My first piece in this series focused on shifting our understanding of communication as simply the imparting and receiving of information to communication as the way we share our worlds with each other. It has many different elements which include both ‘functional’ communication such as question asking or requesting things and also ‘expressive’ communication which we may use to share our emotional or sensory experience. I also highlighted the importance of de-prioritising speech as the main or most valuable way of communicating to better understand and recognise other kinds of communication and people who use them. If you like you can find that first piece here: https://playradical.blog/2016/12/09/playful-communication-the-joys-of-the-non-functioning/?preview_id=221&preview_nonce=6dd19bcf26
. A drawing of a Venn diagram with three circles. The title is “Expression”. The circles are labelled “Emotional”, “vocal” and “physical”. The middle of the diagram where all the circles meet is labelled “laughter”.
I wanted to take a moment today to share this image. It’s a diagram I drew a couple of years ago and come back to it often when thinking about communication. It shows how laughter uses all our methods of expression at once, its emotional, physical and verbal.
I once worked with a kid who was extremely verbal but with little language use or understanding. Every day I saw her we’d sit down and i’d tell her the- always dramatic, very flamboyant- tale of how i’d got to work that day. The thing was, despite probably understanding little of the things I was saying, she always laughed in the right places. I loved these mornings and I love how humour has a way of transcending language and so many other potential barriers to communication.
I often think the most uninhibited people will be amongst strangers is when laughing. Perhaps it has something to do with the way it occupies all these means of expression at once and perhaps it’s also the way it brings down these communication barriers, makes us less self conscious or concerned and more open to that joy and connection.
I know a child who speaks in headlines and snippets from stories of mischief and chaos. He mixes characters, plot points and slapstick action with highlights from days in his life. Though it may sound like a random collage it’s never outside of a certain rationality; rules and facts of life drawn from the workings of traffic signals, YouTube videos of flash floods and the strange things adults say and do. When you talk to him in the Now, ask him to do things, give him choices, and enquire about his day he is on alert. The more you ask of him the more panic can start to creep into his voice. He’ll answer in questions or in seemingly off-shoot statements. When you talk to him in his vocabulary of stories he relaxes, he hops, flaps and smiles. When you speak his language well trust forms and slowly but joyfully you move from telling him his own stories too creating stories together. What may look to an outsider like something repetitive and rigid is actually a very niche kind of play. We’re playing with building blocks made of phrases, actions and noises. Sometimes we’re rearranging them and introducing new blocks and sometimes we’re bringing out reliable structures and colour combinations, just enjoying them for what they are.
A frequent ‘building block’ in our stories. Mr Bean sits waving from an armchair tied to the roof of an old green mini-cooper car driving alongside a green field.
I once created a story tent for a group of children in the corner of an open high ceilinged, drafty gym hall scattered with scooters, balls and rackets. For some children their playful spirit is like oxygen, a gas, it seamlessly grows and shrinks to fill and take over any space. For some it’s more like water, a liquid, in certain spaces it is still and unmotivated, stuck, but in the right environment it can flow effortlessly and spectacularly. Out in the hall these different kinds of children might not work together, some so much more naturally suited than others, but in this colourful cosy micro-environment different children could flourish together. Sharing and exploring this new space and its purpose created about ten magical minutes of joint play. They took turns as they told each other stories wrapped in blankets holding torches. Accompanying each other with drum rolls and scary faces. Three children sat up in a circle, one child lay at the back in the cosiest corner maybe listening and another sat to one side drawing zombies. But all experienced the space together or parallel to each other in their own way.
The Story Tent: A montage of four photographs of a parachute den play space. The first shows the den from a distance. You can see it is built from two colourful parachutes hung together creating a high sloping ceiling. A comfy blue mat pokes out from the den. The second shows the inside. There is a pile of story and fact books on the mat. Loose pieces of fabric a piled up and a small drum hangs from the ceiling. The third shows a upright board within the den which has been covered in paper for drawing. Assorted coloured pens lie on the floor and you can see there are lots of drawings that have been done including one which says “beware of zombies!”. The fourth is a close up of a drawing which says “yard” in a blue cloud with red hand drawn underneath
In many ways these are two completely different tales of play but they both use the idea and tool of the story. Perhaps the most human product. The need to hear, read, discover and share stories seems to be universal. In play, stories have many uses, but the way I use them most is too provide structure. The idea of structure might seem to go against the ideas of play, of freedom of movement and imagination. But not every child can access that freedom with ease, especially outside their private environment. Forgetting this prevents us from recognising and allowing space for certain children’s play. For a lot of children I work with the world is a chaotic and confusing place, especially the social world which is so important in play spaces. To be able to play they must first feel safe which requires feeling able to communicate with those around them and feeling able to understand their environment enough to focus on something else. The first child I talk about above is a great example of how finding a shared communication allows for play, it not only makes him feel understood but allows him to understand me and creates the opportunity for me to be interesting. The following group of children were able to engage in a different kind of play when within an environment that made sense to all. It was the structure provided by stories that allowed for this.
The structure I’m talking about here isn’t a very fixed or elaborate one. A story has to begin somewhere, it has to be headed somewhere and there needs to be some form of conflict or point of multiple possibility. It’s simply something the child can jump off from and come back to at any point should things become confusing or overwhelming. It’s a part of feeling safe. I think we all use some kind of structure even if it’s just as a starting point, a way to transition into play. A lot of children manage this for themselves, others may need a little help or time to learn the skill for themselves. In my work I’ll often jump into play at a point where children are becoming distressed and/or someone is likely to come to harm, or when an activity is becoming to unsafe and I need to provide guidance. My way in will be bringing the play back to the original spark or idea, encouraging progressing, asking what’s next? What happens if? So this time machine, are you going backwards or forwards? Have you meddled in the past too much? You must fix it! What I’m doing is reminding them of the story, bringing them back to the narrative to help resolve conflict or find a new way forward.
A time machine i often come across at work looks suspiciously like this supermarket trolley…
The act of telling a story is a way of providing a structure without boxing a child in. It provides a rhythm and familiarity that the child recognises allowing and giving permission for them to take control. This can work whether you are part of the story or simply providing the environment where it can happen. It’s a kind of ‘in-road’ to play when be able to play isn’t straightforward, for whatever reason that may be. Stories can take you anywhere.
“Communication is about our ability to share our lives with other people”
Working in play, particularly in disability and additional needs settings, has blown open my understanding of what communication is. The quote above from therapist and author Phoebe Caldwell is, to me, is the best explanation of where I’ve landed. Most definitions of communication I see or hear focus on the imparting and receiving of information, they usually also mention speech and writing as how this can be done. I’m not suggesting these definitions are invalid or wrong, just that I feel they largely miss the point; sharing. Our communication is the reason we are able to exist alongside each other and the effectiveness of our communication is what determines how harmoniously we are able to do this. It’s not just the imparting and receiving of information that makes up communication, it’s that bit in the middle, the bit where you are existing in the same moment as another person and choosing to explore that together. That’s where the truth and joy of communication lies, not in the mechanics, in the sharing.
Painting by Keith Haring
Speech is so often prioritised and seen as the ultimate way of communicating, and, that’s because for many, it is. Speech seems to come fairly naturally to most and from what I understand feels natural too, easy and satisfying. But not for everyone and if you take anything from this post I hope it’s this; speech is not the only way, the best way or the most ‘human’ way to communicate. When I’m able to communicate with someone without speaking I feel at my most content, connected and understood. People often mistake quietness or lack of conversation as a lack of things to express or desire to communicate. That’s not true, it’s perhaps just that talking, to them, is the most natural way to communicate and connect with people and therefore they assume, to everyone. I can speak, often very well, but talking often feels like a means to an end rather than an end itself, it’s for that ‘functional’ bit of communicating rather than that expressive, joyful sharing bit. Writing is different for me, when I’m writing in a way that feels natural it feels much closer to drawing than speaking.
De-prioritising speech is especially important in my line of work. A lot of the kids I work with don’t speak, can’t speak or perhaps speech just isn’t a form of communication that comes natural to them. That’s not to say speech isn’t important or useful, just that it is a way of communication that has no more or less value than any other kind; the way we jump or rock, the noises we make, images we create, the faces we pull, the way we move through and change our environment, the pauses we take to breathe and be, sharing touch and laughter and any other way you can think of that allows us to express ourselves. When kids face challenges in their ability to communicate we put a lot of emphasis on teaching and enabling them to communicate functionally, in doing this we also need to remember that a person’s inability to communicate is equally our inability to understand them. Whilst we create tools and put time into giving a child a way to ask for the toilet or a snack we also need to take the time to notice and respond to all those kinds of communications a person uses as they try to share their world. Ignoring these or dismissing these as less important than that ‘functional’ communication can cause us to isolate people in our attempt to understand them.
One of the many reasons I love working in play is that the play space is an environment where different forms of communication are already valued and recognised. It’s allows for, encourages and often even priorities those non-functional or non-verbal communications. In this way it creates a beauty and authenticity I think we could all benefit from if we took the time to explore it.
Phoebe Caldwell is an author and practitioner who works with people considered to have severe communication difficulties. She uses the technique ‘intensive interaction’ and has written extensively on the subject. Here’s her website where you can find more information including information in ‘easy-read’ formats; http://www.phoebecaldwell.co.uk/