Graduate students from the University of Mary Washington’s College of Education are gaining experience through Play-lab, an activity center for children with a diverse range of special needs, created by Nicole Myers, an associate professor in UMW’s education department.
Myers received a Jepson Fellowship in 2010 and chose to use the support to create the Play-lab for children with special needs. The program is held at the Fairview at River Club Church in Fredericksburg, Va.
Graduate students work with the children on individual activities geared specifically to their age level and abilities. The children also get the chance to run and play at Play-lab.
“There was a need for education students to have authentic learning environments,” said Myers. “The College of Education wanted pre-service teachers to have support and supervision in there.”
Play-lab was a place where pre-service and beginning teachers could try out research-based teaching methods in a microcosm of what would really happen in schools, according to Myers.
The UMW students who run Play-lab are members of the Methods for Adapted Curriculum (EDSE 541) class. Everyone participates as part of their field experience. It takes place from 6 p.m. to 7:15 p.m. in order to cater to working adults in the graduate program and children who participate after the school day.
“Students benefit having each other for resources and are able to try methods out at Play-lab, form good connections and get support they might not get in schools,” said Myers.
Lauren Puglia, a student in the graduate program, agreed with Myers.
“I am a teacher, and I’m learning different strategies,” said Puglia. “I can take what I am learning here and use it with my class.”
Play-lab is set up in different classrooms, with 30 minutes spent in each. There is structured teaching, where the children work independently to improve their attention, focus and behavior. Goals from each child’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP), used in their schools, are also incorporated. A free playroom contains a variety of toys, large exercise balls, play mats and a trampoline. Here, UMW students can evaluate how these children interact with each other as they play. In the social skills room, there is cooperative play and role plays to work on improving cognitive flexibility and reducing rigidity, traits many children with special needs need help with. There is also a sensory room, where a child can go if he feels he needs a break. There is a 1:1 ratio of UMW student to child.
“Participants are given homework each week, and their parents get a copy of the program,” said Myers. The program, or theme, changes each semester. This semester the program is titled “Unstuck and On Target!” which teaches children with special needs how to be more flexible in their thoughts and actions.
“Cognitive flexibility allows children with special needs to be able to interact more positively with peers and adults and is a skill they will need in order to have positive and vocational skills as an adult,” said Myers.
Parents are also given weekly updates and are able to meet with the UMW students at the end of the semester. During the meeting, the graduate students focus on the ways the parents can support their child with social, daily living, academic and behavioral skills. The students answer any questions from the parents and give them a list of resources that help their child.
“We’ve also had families connect with each other so they can continue the friendships their children make at Play-lab, which is nice, too,” said Myers.
Play-lab is recommended to parents of children with special needs through places like Parent Resource Centers, pediatricians’ offices and the Child Development Center in Fredericksburg. Play-lab is open to children with a variety or disabilities ages three to 13 years old who may benefit from an adapted curriculum. UMW faculty review submitted applications to determine if the child is a good fit for the program. There are also scholarships available for needy families due to grants and donations.
Myers told the story of one boy that got on a bus thinking it was going to Play-lab, found out it was not, and refused to get back on. One father remarked that Play-lab “opened many doors for his son.”
For many Play-lab “graduates,” their social skills have improved so they can be included in groups and camps with typically developing peers.
“It’s fun and it helps you learn more and you get better and better. It helps you with making friends and it helps you with everything,” said seven-year-old Grayson.