The early childhood centre is often the first and only opportunity some of these children have of being fully integrated. If handled well, it will provide them with important insights and an expanded view of life. It may also help in part to prevent further deterioration of existing abilities and help them compensate for skills that are unlikely to be fully developed. For others whose special needs are less acute, it is an important stepping stone, the first opportunity towards integration and independence in life.
Outside play gives children with special needs an opportunity to be treated more like their more able peers. Indeed, Leland G Shaw (1987) observes that:
‘Well-designed playgrounds with ample space where planning has been carried out by informed parties with a deep understanding of children’s play and development… are the most effective spaces for accommodating a markedly varied range of skills and needs that can occur within any group of children, let alone those with special needs.’
In outdoor play children with special needs can imitate, model behaviour on what they observe and, like other children, play on the periphery of groups before integrating with smaller and larger groups. Their level of development and type of special need will have a bearing on how fully they become involved. For many, peer group pressure will be an incentive, and it may also make them aware for the first time that they are different in some ways. This realisation can be part of an early process of growing acceptance. It need not be a negative experience, but rather one of reaching a reality that will help them move on to acquire skills to accommodate and handle their needs, social and otherwise.
It is not possible to meet all the play objectives and goals of children with special needs in an early childhood centre, but a wide range of the children can be, and are, integrated. It may take a child with severe cerebral palsy many months to learn, for example, to climb a low timber bridge – but this may well also signal a whole new level of independence and be a cause of celebration for everyone at the centre.
Children with different forms of Asperger’s actively seek and needs settings that allow them to play alone, retreat and observe. Marked variations are exhibited with Asperger’s depending on factors such as the form, severity, the level of early intervention, support, experience and continuity of the teacher and the acceptance, support and level of consistent loving handling.
It is also a learning experience for the other children: sometimes their questions, which may seem blunt to an adult, show an honest curiosity that will help them, often quickly and readily accept people with special needs, not only at this stage but throughout their lives.