Teacher’s bookshelf: Early years playgrounds

specific learning difficulties is a delay in the connections between the neural pathways. Constant reinforcement of activities to stimulate these neural pathways is essential if a learner with special education needs or specific learning difficulties is to achieve his or her potential. The brain reacts to the environment as it learns from experience. A stimulating environment encourages network formation and ‘results in the improvement of the brain’s ability to react, learn and memorise – its intelligence’ (Portwood 2000).

For example, proprioception (the awareness of where our limbs are in space) affects many children with learning difficulties such as ADHD, dyspraxia and dyslexia. The sensitive receptors that react to the amount of contraction or stretch in our muscles undergo when moving inform our brain which records it in our memory system. This kinaesthetic mapping is an essential part of developing good gross motor skills, which in turn produce more sophisticated fine motor skills essential for learning, both in the classroom and generally in life skills. The vestibular system also provides us with information regarding the direction and speed of movement. It enables us to develop good muscle tone and balance. If the proprioceptive and vestibular systems do not function effectively a child will appear clumsy and uncoordinated – a feature prevalent in a child with dyspraxia.

The nature of physical play is directly related to the child’s level of motor control. In most children this is an area of voluntary movement, but for those children with special needs this is not so clearly defined. Activities such as weaving in and out of obstacles, combining swift changes of movement and direction, following a sequence and keeping balance are an essential part of achieving fluidity of movement. Playground activities that incorporate the use of large muscle groups (coordination of arms, legs, head and trunk) leading to improvement in control of small muscles groups (balance in the feet or hands grasping, which is involved in large movements such as climbing) form part of a child’s developmental milestones. Manipulative skills such as pouring take place through sand and water play; this is where loose items combine spatial judgement, movement control and clear separate roles for both hands. The use of each tool often requires practice for children with impaired motor control.

There is often conflict between child safety and development of these fine motor skills and supported practice may be required, particularly where a sequence of activities is required. A well-designed playground does much to support the teacher’s role by facilitating one-to-one contact, observation and support. A playground that incorporates plenty of multisensory stimulation will improve the integration of skills such as spatial awareness, body image, interaction and self-esteem. Equally, it is important to include tranquil areas where a child who has difficulty in assimilating numerous activities has the opportunity for ‘down time’.

Above all children with special educational needs require more time to organise their thoughts, actions and responses. They may have devised strategies to avoid difficult tasks so it is important to show appreciation of the things that they are good at, while encouraging them to challenge their limitations – giving plenty of support and affirmation along the way. This is especially important in younger children where self-esteem seems to rely more on success than on doing the same activity as everyone else.

Children with special needs have a critical need and right to play as an essential means of maximising their potential. Integration, not segregation, is the need of most children with special needs. For most children this is best done when they are integrated into a well-planned and equipped children’s centre playground. It allows them to be seen primarily as individuals in their own right and only secondarily as children with special needs.

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