I’m going to take a break from brooding about Christmas for a while.  I’ve finally seen some tasteful lawn decor — giant blue ornamental balls dangling from a barren deciduous tree, and not a blow-up character in sight — but I’m burning out on all the family time, holiday shopping, charity appeals, endless baking, and scheduled commitments.  I’m ready to bring you another installment in my “series” of favorite therapy toys/techniques. 

Actually, this one is more about the therapist/adult as the toy.  Surprisingly, I don’t mean this literally.  I’m well aware of the wonderful times that can be had swinging children upside-down from their toenails, flying them in circles, and flinging them onto resilient sofas.  I’ve wanted to fling many a hyperactive child, for the right and wrong reasons.  Hanen is a beautifully designed series of programs for parents helping their children to communicate.  In their program developed for children with autism-spectrum disorders or difficulty with the social aspects of communication, they advocate the human-as-toy approach, though I come at my ideas a little differently.

In Hanen, you, the adult, involve yourself as part of the play to make the play include a human aspect.  Instead of filling up a bucket with toys, you might use the bucket as a hat on your head, and let the child delight in seeing it fall off your head again and again.  You might build a train track that uses your legs as a tunnel, or hide toys in your hands.  Either way, you’re looking for opportunities for interaction and communication in play, and, truly, in a multitude of everyday activities. 

The reason I think of my ideas as using myself as part of the therapy is that I am often wearing the toy.  I am the toy.  I try to bring something irresistable (for a 3-5 year old) that impels them to communicate.  Though I may be every bit the bill-paying adult,  I often dress in a manner that is a combination of easy-maneuvering for work + machine-washable + kid-friendly that sometimes leaves me feeling a bit like I’m 12 years old.  The pigtails don’t help, I’m sure.  It’s nice not to be limited to dress pants, button-down shirts, blazers, and high-heels for work apparel.  I could very easily pull on scrubs, as many teachers and therapists who work with preschoolers are inexplicably doing these days.  I much prefer, however, to wear Snoopy skirts, striped tights, My Little Pony sweatshirts, and WALL-E barrettes.  Yes I do.  I made the Snoopy skirt out of an old bedsheet.  I made the WALL-E barrettes out of Shrinky-Dinks. 

In my personal life, I would much prefer to eschew commercialized products for children.  In my previous life teaching at a Quaker school, it was the school philosophy, and I grew to appreciate it very much.  Were I working solely with typically developing children, you’d be more likely to hear the following exchanges:

Timmy: “Look at my new light-up Disney Cars holographic supersonic animated licensed character sneakers!”

Me: “Are your shoes fast?”

Jojo: “Do you like my new Disney princess Cinderella Jasmine Ariel Belle lunchbox?  It has a matching Thermos”

Me:  “I like you!”

Now, however, I’ve found that kids who do not/will not talk about anything else, will come to life when they seem familiar characters.  Their faces will light up when they see my WALL-E barrettes.  “Why you got WALL-E in you hair?”  “Hey! Dat Robot in you hair!”  “Yook!  Wall-E!”  I remember the first time I observed this phenomenon.  A new school year has just begun, and a little girl who had a speech delay and wasn’t saying much more than 2 words at a time, even though she was almost 4, was shyly flitting around the classroom.  I tried to engage her in a conversation of some sort, and finally asked after her shoes, which looked new as they were still white.  She looked at them, she looked at me, and she burst out, “PONIES!”  We bonded over My Little Pony.

Though they don’t really recognize Snoopy anymore, and I haven’t gone all-out in Disney paraphernalia, I still marvel at the power of a familiar TV character to elicit a response in reluctant talkers.  

It is expressly for this purpose that I have kept somewhat up-to-date on my knowledge of current children’s TV programming and toys.  Well, maybe not exclusively.  I love PBS kids television shows.  I’ve been watching Arthur since high school.  I’m hooked on “Fetch” and “Cyberchase”, though those are a bit over my students’ age levels.  I know about Backyardigans and Caillou.  I can recognize Wubbzy.  I seek out Spongebob on On Demand.  Barney has always made me vomit, and I can’t sit through an episode of Blue’s Clues the way I can with Sesame Street, but I keep up.  And I think it pays off. 

The other gimmick I use in making myself the toy is nail polish.  I noticed that a particular child who otherwise would not say much voluntarily and would just sit there unnoticed in a corner of the classroom like a bump on a log took one look at my nails and launched into a dissertation on the colors and benefits of nail polish.  She counted the number of yellow-colored ones, compared it to the number of red-colored ones, and recited the alternating pattern that Mr. Apron had unwittingly created when he painted my nails in alternating hues.  She told me who paints her nails at home, and how she hopes to get them painted soon.  Even children who are non-verbal, or “communicate with their eyes” have been known to stop what they’re doing and focus on my nails.  They may rub them gently, examine their own, count them, or – gasp! – look up at me and make eye contact. 

My nail polish is my bling.  I don’t wear make-up. I don’t put much time into my hair.  I can’t wear much jewelry to work.  The one piece of jewelry I wear is my wristwatch.  No one seems to wear these anymore either, which of course immediately makes children focus on my wrist.  My watch is pretty special, too, since it’s a self-winding skeleton watch with a chunky orange band.  What does this mean?  It means that it has endless moving parts, and you can see through it to the winding mechanism in the back.  When you shake the watch, you can see the weight swing around and wind the watch.  You can see not only the hands ticking, but also all the gears moving.  It’s really cool.  And kids think so, too.  I’ve engaged a small class of children “timing” them as they run around the gym, exhausting themselves.  I’ve used it as a reward to keep kids focused for a few more minutes.  And I occasionally let them hold it (ah, only a few trustworthy kiddos) and shake it themselves. 

These little things – the familiar characters I can share, the nail polish Mr. Apron chooses, the wristwatch I use to make sure I’m giving them the right amount of therapy – make me more kid-friendly.  It doesn’t have to be Mickey Mouse scrubs, or a shirt with the entire alphabet on it.  They don’t care about how tall I am, how I wear my hair, what religion I observe, or how old I am.  They don’t care I can find acceptable gifts for my mother this year, or if I remembered to shut the dog gate this morning.  They only see what I can present to them.  Inadvertently, or by choice, I have found little gimmicks that can help me do my job by making communication with me a little more exciting, a little more rewarding, and, hopefully, for the hard-to-reach kiddos, irresistible.