Play and Social Interaction of Children with Disabilities at Learning/activity Centers in an Inclusive Preschool

Article excerpt

Abstract

This study of nine preschool children with disabilities in an inclusive program with typical peers examined the types of play and social interactions in which they engaged in their chosen learning/activity centers. The following learning centers were used in this study: art (paints and drawing materials); creative expression (making teacher-directed products using cutting); writing (typewriter, letter writing, and printing materials); housekeeping/dress-up (kitchen setup, various apparel); computer (software programs); woodworking (hammers, wood blocks, and foam blocks); Lego[R] (multi-colored blocks); and science (nature materials). Findings indicated differences among the children in the amount of time they spent in various centers, the number of different types of play in which they engaged, and in the amount of time spent in play of various types. The children also differed in the number of observed segments in which peers (typical and atypical) were present, number/type of peer interaction even ts, number of segments in which teachers were present, and number/type of teacher interaction events. Children with various types of disabilities had different patterns of play, and case study examples describe some of these differences. Implications for practice include the effects of teacher presence in centers as catalysts for involvement of children with disabilities, and the importance of teacher awareness about the influence of individual child preferences, and type and extent of disability, on their play experiences. Suggestions for teacher facilitation of peer interactions to extend their length and social complexity are given.

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More and more preschool programs are embracing the philosophy of integrating children with disabilities and their typically developing peers; publicly funded programs, in fact, are mandated to do so (Brown, Bergen, House, Hittle, & Dickerson, 2000; Hanson, Guttierrez, Morgan, Brennan, & Zercher, 1997). The philosophy of inclusive programs includes two social dimensions. First, proponents believe it is essential to encourage social interactions between children with disabilities and their typical peers, and they cite research studies showing that inclusive programs promote such social interactions and may lead to greater learning (e.g., Peck, Carlson, & Helmstetter, 1992; Staub & Peck, 1994/1995). Second, an "inclusionary" philosophy assumes that these social interactions in integrated settings promote overall social competence, and proponents believe this to be an especially important goal for children with disabilities, whatever their cognitive or maturational levels.

Social competence has been defined as the ability to make appropriate social choices when confronted with a variety of environmental options (Guralnick & Neville, 1997). Proponents of inclusive preschools assert that the social competence of children with disabilities develops through their daily interactions with peers who are typically developing (as well as with teachers and other adults in the setting). Moreover, because of the observational learning process (Bandura, 1997), such interactions subsequently improve communication, social/affective, and gross motor skills. Thus, children with disabilities can use peer observation and peer interaction in various social settings or learning/activity centers to practice social skills.

Thus, preschool settings that promote inclusionary practices may allow for a stronger support system to children with disabilities by providing them with peer models of play, social interactions, and language development; showing them more sophisticated behaviors within peer play and social interactions; engaging them in a more stimulating environment made up of colorful play objects and engaging learning center materials; and enhancing teacher facilitation of peer interaction skills through nonintrusive verbal or nonverbal assistance (e. …