Everyone wants to feel comfortable and included at playgroup, but sometimes it can be a challenge to know how to achieve that when a child seems to be “a bit different”. As a parent of an adult child with autism, working as a special needs education assistant and being a PlayConnect facilitator for over 10 years, I have experienced these challenges and seen the benefits from all angles.
An inclusive playgroup should look just like any other playgroup, with children playing and carers chatting and sharing a cuppa. In reality, all children are different and have individual needs, and all mums need friends for support at various times, so creating inclusion for everyone shouldn’t be difficult and definitely has benefits for all.
With this in mind, inclusion does not mean treating everyone the same and expecting everyone to behave in the same way. Inclusion is about accepting that everyone has individual needs and making sure those needs are met so that each individual can participate in a way that suits them.
Some physical disabilities are quite obvious, but others are “hidden”, like autism often is. Some children may have a diagnosis, but the parents may not be ready to share this with the wider community just yet, and some children may come to your playgroup without a diagnosis, but have behavioural challenges that might cause upset to some participants. Chances are, those same challenges will be upsetting the carer as well, because they don’t want to cause upset to others. Offering to help this parent when these challenges occur makes such a positive difference, rather than ostracising them because their child can’t conform or telling them how they should parent their child. Inclusion means not being quick to judge, because it is possible that the child may have some underlying problem of which the parent is only just becoming aware of, as they spend more time with other children.
Parents of children with disabilities or challenges need to feel that you want their family to be there. They need to feel supported in the same way as other parents when they are having a particularly bad day. Offer to make them a cuppa, rather than expecting them to get their own – they will be so grateful! There’s a good chance playgroup is the only time they get to sit down, knowing their child is safely eating or playing.
They need to know it is okay if their child does not join in the singing or sit for morning tea or a story. If you think their child would enjoy a particular story and they are playing in the sandpit, consider taking story time to the sandpit for a change. Listen when the parent says “My child won’t…”, “My child doesn’t like…” or “My child only eats … so is it okay if we bring him separate food?” and accept it. Parents know their child best and playgroup is a place to encourage children to try new experiences and participate in things they enjoy, not to make them do things that will upset them.
Offering to hold the baby while the mother deals with the pre-schooler having a meltdown is something positive you can do, but there are other ways to be welcoming and inclusive too. If the parent has shared their child’s diagnosis with you, they are probably happy to talk about it. Take time to try and understand what it means for the child and the family and how you might be able to support the family at playgroup.
It might mean that they arrive late regularly or can’t stay for pack-up time if the child is ready to go. Understand that and reassure the parent that it is okay. If half an hour at playgroup is all the family can manage, understand how important that half hour must be to them if they made the effort to get there for such a short time.
In the same way that parents of all children get excited when a developmental milestone like walking or crawling is met, parents of children with disabilities get excited about meeting milestones too, even though they might be different milestones or they might happen months or years after their typically developing peers. Make an effort to notice and celebrate these milestones with them in the same way you would for other children.
The benefits of inclusion for our society are multiple. By including families with children with disabilities in playgroups, children learn acceptance and understanding, and that different people have different needs. When acceptance and valuing of difference and individual needs begins in childhood, at a time when children are developing skills and building the foundations for life-long learning, they are more likely to embrace diversity and difference as adults.
Want to know more? Have a look at our Inclusive Resources here.