Play

The other day I noticed both Bears playing together in a way I hadn’t observed before. Little Bear had built a new Lego set, an air ambulance, and had somehow managed to convince his brother to play with him. Not only that but he had convinced him to include his new Lego set, a superhero ship with Ant Man in it, and the two of them were caught up in some sort of imaginary world that involved Lego men living in an Egyptian sarcophagus, daring rescues and the occasional mention of a ninja. The game moved around the house, obviously, because helicopters and spaceships do fly and baddies will insist upon moving their lairs.

It felt noteworthy for a couple of reasons. Big Bear has hitherto been very cautious about his possessions around Little Bear, generally keeping new or precious things safely stowed in his bedroom with its securely lockable door. There are now days when he leaves the door open (a MUCH bigger deal than you would imagine and one we are pretending not to have noticed for fear he will shut it again) and days when he is more relaxed about his stuff. The fact that he had just built something new and was willing to play with it in the same game as Little Bear really showed how far the Bears have come in terms of trust and respect for one another.

I wondered why they hadn’t played similar games before with Little Bear’s toys (he’s only too happy to share with his brother) but realised it was because until very recently, this year anyway, Little Bear couldn’t have played those games. He wouldn’t have been able to follow the storyline or formulate appropriate dialogue to be able to join in, however much he might have wanted to. The leaps he has made (and continues to make) with his language development have unlocked a whole new world for him in terms of imaginary play. Not only that, but his ability to concentrate and to engage in more complex games has really developed too.

It has got me reflecting about play in general and the changes we have seen over the nearly three years Little Bear has been with us. I’m going to talk about play in developmental stages. There are various ways play development can be categorised but I’m thinking mainly about symbolic play/ imaginative play rather than social play. There are several different terms for each of the stages that can be found in literature on the subject but this is the version I personally find the most useful.

Exploratory play

This is the first stage of play to develop (in typical development) when infants pick things up, drop them, chew on them, throw them, bang them together. Children are exploring tastes, textures, weights, sounds, wetness/dryness etc. They tend to be fascinated by anything and everything, not necessarily things you traditionally consider to be toys. It’s their first attempts at engaging with the world around them and they want to experience everything.

I suspect that many children who have adverse starts in life don’t have enough experience at this stage. If you spend too long in a cot or pushchair or highchair without any stimuli, you won’t be able to explore the world around you in the way you should. Being neglected at this stage robs a child of the experience they need to assimilate their senses. It is hard to learn to differentiate between hard/soft, wet/dry, hot/cold, rough/gentle if you don’t have any experience of feeling/touching things. I suspect that many sensory integration needs have their root in neglect at this stage.

When we met Little Bear, aged 3 and a half, much of his free play happened at this level. We spent a lot of time splashing in water and digging in sand. I also spent a lot of time telling him not to throw things or touch things that I would have expected him to know not to touch. There is the time he tried to lick a snake, the time he played in the toilet water and the time he smashed all the hens’ newly laid eggs. I genuinely believe Little Bear was still trying to assimilate all the sensory information he was getting from his environment and can only assume he hadn’t had enough time exploring (safely) when he was younger.

I had to make conscious efforts to offer him plenty of opportunities to engage in tactile sensory activities whilst teaching him some boundaries to keep him safe.

Water, the sand pit, kinetic sand, play doh, baking, not concerning ourselves with cutlery and turning a blind eye to him laying down prostrate and ‘swimming’ in gravel were the key, alongside exposing Little Bear to a wide range of ‘normal’ play experiences.

Pretend play with real objects/ oneself

The next stage of play is when children begin to show an understanding of what everyday objects are used for e.g. they might pretend to drink from an empty cup or babble into a pretend phone.

The thing about children who have been neglected is that their development is pretty patchy and though Little Bear had gaps at the exploratory stage, he did know what everyday objects were for and could pretend in this way already. He was certainly partial to a phone, even though his language skills wouldn’t allow him to have much of a conversation.

Large doll play

It isn’t usually long before children begin to relate everyday objects to each other and to their other toys. This is when they start to ‘feed’ their teddies or get them dressed.

We are pretty partial to a teddies tea party in our house and I can remember Little Bear being a bit bewildered the first time we got plates and food out for his cuddly animals. He soon picked up the idea though, often dolling out real biscuits for the animals and taking the opportunity to have some himself.

I found this stage useful for modelling behaviours and exploring some of Little Bear’s behaviours in a less direct way. Sometimes I would make the animals do things he had done or that we were finding tricky and it was interesting to observe how he dealt with them (he often took the role of parent). We also did it in a way that took the heat off Little Bear. Sometimes it was his rabbit who had been shouting or throwing things or saying rude words and we would ask Little Bear to have a word with them and teach them how to be sensible. He loved this responsibility and getting the rabbit to behave often mysteriously led to improvements in Little Bear’s own behaviour.

I’m not sure whether the last paragraph is more about developing play or exploiting the stages of play but still. Occasionally it worked the other way and Little Bear would express a fear or a worry through the voice of his animals, which was useful too.

Sequences of pretend play

Over time children begin to put several bits of play together so they might play with their toy kitchen and act out making dinner, feeding it to their doll then washing up.

I would say we were working at this stage alongside the previous one and exploratory play when we first met Little Bear and for the first months afterwards. That is the thing with child development; it is often not neat and linear, but skills overlap and appear at different rates. I think that children who have had difficult starts are more likely to have a muddled developmental profile and I can honestly say we could go from working at a 6-12 month level in the morning to approx. a 3 year level in the afternoon then back to an 18 month level again. It was hard to keep up with but imperative to match Little Bear’s level as best we could. There is no point trying to work to chronological levels when your child needs something much different. Little Bear would not have been able to reach the places he has reached had we not filled in the gaps.

The main sequences of play we engaged in a lot involved Little Bear pretending to be a superhero. We did a lot of dressing up, building dens and pretending we were in peril. He seemed to love it and it was great for extending his world knowledge and vocabulary.

Small World Play

At this stage children transfer their play skills into miniature representatives of the types of games they have already been playing. They might start playing with a farm or Duplo or Playmobil and doing some basic pretending.

I know we weren’t ready to play at this level when Little Bear first arrived. I distinctly remember trying to introduce him to Duplo but he lost his temper within the first nanosecond because he couldn’t get the man to sit in the bus as he wanted. You would certainly expect a typically developing three year old to be able to play at this level but it would take months of exploratory play, building resilience and bigger, more physical play for us to be ready to try again.

I think it has been the development of Little Bear’s attention span and his resilience to persevere through knockbacks and failed attempts that has allowed him to engage in small world play and crucially, enjoy it. I find it uniquely pleasing to observe.

Little Bear has always had a good imagination, that was clear from day 1, but it is only at some point in this past year (he’s 6 now) that everything has come together to allow him to explore it in his play. Play stages and language development are very much aligned so it shouldn’t really be a surprise that it is the point at which he has gained linguistic competence that he has also developed complex play abilities.

Play develops from here on in, becoming more complex, with longer, more detailed scenarios panning out. The Lego game that I observed the boys playing at the start of this post epitomised the progress Little Bear has made – playing a small world game, with tiny fiddly pieces that require a heap of resilience, making up an imagined scenario, adding appropriate dialogue and crucially negotiating and listening to his brother so that they could both be in the same imagined place, at the same time, contributing to the same scenario. It is standard kid stuff on face value but it is so complex and requires so many pre-requisite skills that it really is a feat of development.

I should really give Lego its own special mention before I finish because we love Lego in our house and also because it alone is a good indicator of how Little Bear is doing.

Big Bear had a premature love for Lego, getting into it from age 2.5 and loving it ever since. Given Little Bear’s disordered/ delayed development he wasn’t going to get into it anywhere near as young. I think he was about 5 when he could first start to tolerate building a simple model with a high level of adult support. I remember worrying because he really struggled to scan the tray to find pieces he needed let alone being able to follow the instructions. As with everything, we have practised and persevered and Little Bear has developed his skills quickly (once he overcame the initially difficulty). This week he chose to spend his holiday money on a sizeable Lego model of a dragon. It has an 8-14 age recommendation and he has done brilliantly, followed the instructions well and built the majority of it himself with just a little adult support.

What are my conclusions? Well, Little Bear is something of a legend but that is often my conclusion. Play has played a crucial role in his development and is very much intertwined with language development. Play has to happen in developmental order. You can’t skip bits willy-nilly; whichever stage a child is at, that is where you need to meet them. Development doesn’t happen overnight; stages take as long as they take. Developmental delay is never hopeless. Progress can and does happen and we should be aspirational for our children, no matter their start in life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Play

Big Bear’s Mini Projects

When we considered adoption, one of our main priorities was making sure that Big Bear was going to be ok with the whole thing. He had been on his own for 6 years, getting our undivided attention. We knew that getting a brother or sister was going to be a HUGE change for him and as such we would need to ensure that he still felt secure and loved. From the onset we planned to have Special Time with him each day, as well as various other tweaks. We hoped that as he was getting a younger sibling, we would be able to stagger bedtimes and Big Bear would get some quality time once the new arrival was asleep. Luckily this did pan out as planned and Little Bear is frequently asleep before 7pm, sometimes at 6:30pm.

If Grizzly is at work, I settle Little Bear then come down and have Special Time with Big Bear.

Towards the end of last term I began to realise that all we ever did in Special Time was snuggle up on the sofa and watch TV. Whilst this is lovely and something we definitely should do sometimes, I began to think we were slightly missing the point of Special Time. We weren’t chatting and we certainly weren’t doing anything constructive. Somehow, out of that thought, the idea of Big Bear’s Mini Projects was born. Why not try making something or doing a small task together in Special Time instead? Always keen to get Big Bear off his I Pad and doing something more “wholesome” I was getting quite excited about this. I was also keen to use the hundreds of kits, pens, craft items etc. that we had accumulated over time and that neither bear ever chooses to get out when they have the chance (too busy being boisterous).

I floated the idea with Big Bear and he seemed keen. We agreed to do a mini project each night of the summer holidays. I tweeted about it and @NowWeAreSix suggested I do a picture blog about it at the end of the summer. So here we are:

Arts & crafty bits

We have used Blo Pens, stencils, colour changing pens, Spirograph, scratch foil, sequins, mosaics and good old colouring in. We have also discovered Hama beads which we hadn’t tried before (although ours were actually a Matalan version) and found them pretty addictive.

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Lego

Big Bear had his 7th birthday at the start of the holidays and was given a very large Star Wars set. We broke it down into about 6 or 7 mini projects so it kept us busy for about a week in the end! We have also built some of our own designs and Big Bear has got quite into creating flags.

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Kits

We have built cars, a mobile solar system, pom-pom animals, pipe cleaner animals, a wooden aeroplane and tried Origami. It’s hard! We managed some light sabres but need to brave something more complex.

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Miscellaneous

Big Bear helped Grizzly to spray paint his model car and we played the game Minotaurus.

 

 

I’ve had a lovely time doing Big Bear’s Mini Projects and it has definitely felt like a more productive use of Special Time. The fact that we can chat while we’re making/ doing/ creating is a big plus. I think Big Bear likes it too because now he’s back at school he’s still asking to do a project some nights. He’s tired so the TV is creeping back in again but even if we save mini projects for the weekend and holidays it will certainly be better than not doing them at all.

Do you have any suggestions for us?

 

Big Bear’s Mini Projects

July at Adoption: The Bear Facts

I feel as though I start every monthly round-up by saying “it’s been a busy month” but, well, it has! Perpetual busyness or not, here are the best bits of July…

Events:

The first week or so of the month passed by in a blur of rollers and paintbrushes. The builders paused for a week so that we could decorate before they laid the wooden floor. When I say “we”, I mean I, as obviously Grizzly was at work. When he wasn’t at work, he entertained the boys so that I could paint more. My Dad helped me some days which was a God-send. It was an intense 5 days and 6 evenings and a bigger job than we really anticipated but needs must. However I did enjoy doing something practical and I had fun listening to the radio and jiggling my way around the living room.

If you’re nosy (like me) and like seeing what other people’s houses are like, you can see the finished room and fruits of my labour at the bottom of this blog post.

The subsequent weeks mainly revolved around school – transition visits, assemblies etc. You can read about how we got on in End of Term and Achievement.

Before I knew it, term had ended and suddenly there were 6 long weeks stretching out ahead of me and 2 boisterous boys to keep entertained. It is terrifying how quickly time passes once your children are school-aged! Usually I like to plan what I’m going to do with the boys in the holidays. It is as though the plans are a comfort blanket for me and just having them might make it all a bit easier. However, between the renovations, Big Bear’s imminent birthday and our Adoption Celebration to plan, I just haven’t had any brain space to plan holiday outings. Consequently we are making it up as we go along and surviving one day at a time. “Winging it” I think is the technical term.

I’m not going to claim it has all been rainbows and butterflies (far from it) but this post is meant to be about all the good bits so I will save the challenges for a different post (I can feel one called Managing Boisterous Boys in the Holidays coming on…).

The lack of plans has meant that we have spent more time at home than we usually would. I have tried to dig deep to think of/organise wholesome activities to busy them with. I love to see the boys sitting still and engaged in a task that doesn’t involve an I Pad, but it’s something we rarely manage to achieve.

We spent a fun (for them: intense and organised with military precision for me) afternoon making biscuits. We used the cookie cutters and then when the biscuits were cool we decorated them. It took about an hour to clear up again, Little Bear ate pretty much a whole tube of icing and there was bickering over who was having which cookie cutter but they loved it and were very pleased with their creations.

We have also discovered special bubbles that you can hold and bounce on your hand if you wear the special purple gloves that come in the set. I wish I could post some photos as it’s very cool but both bears are very identifiable in them.

Another day, one of Big Bear’s friends came round with her mum for a play. They were off on their holidays so brought Big Bear an early birthday present. As he cannot in any way contain his birthday excitement, I let him open it. It was a box of Lego which he promptly opened and sat at the table to build with his friend. Little Bear, not wanting to be left out, climbed up to sit with them. Knowing that he wouldn’t manage to sit there long before wanting to interfere with the building, I was hit by inspiration – I was sure there was a box of Junior Lego in the cupboard which had been given as a present some time ago. We had put it away because at the time Little Bear wasn’t ready for it. I wasn’t too sure if he was now but sometimes it’s best to give him the opportunity anyway.

Miraculously 3 children sat calmly at the table playing with Lego on their own trays for half an hour or more. The instructions are quite clear in Junior Lego so I sat with Little Bear and showed him the pictures of the bricks he needed and asked him to find them. I was a little panicked to start with as he didn’t seem to be able to match the items to the pictures, not even selecting the right colour of brick. We persevered though and soon he was scanning the tray and selecting the correct pieces consistently. I did most of the building but he did have a go and managed to put some pieces in place, which boosted his confidence. I was very impressed that he managed to sit there throughout the whole build and he was very proud of the truck and digger that had appeared. Both bears doing Lego side by side without incident! Wonders never cease.

We have had a lovely trip to a new park with our friends for a play and a picnic and Grizzly and Little Bear have been really busy with a new construction project. They have decided to build a fort in the garden. There is no room whatsoever so they have built it above the chicken coup! I’m very impressed with it, especially how quickly it has gone up. I think Grizzly likes it more than the boys do (don’t tell him!) and keeps adding bits, like secret windows and spy holes. Little Bear is a natural at DIY so helping out with real tools is ecstasy for him.

Big Bear seems to have really grown up all of a sudden and has much more of an attention span for calmer activities. We have decided to do a little project each night, just for 10 minutes to half an hour. So far it’s going really well and we’re both enjoying thinking of different things to do. @NowWeAreSix has challenged me to do a picture blog at the end of the summer to share all of #bigbearsminiprojects and I plan to do just that.

Snapshots:

  • Seeing my little non-fruit –or-vegetable-eating bear picking and eating strawberries fresh from the bush in my parents garden
  • Big & Little Bear discovering a forgotten about whoopee cushion. Little Bear had clearly never experienced one before from the hysterical laughter that ensued.
  • Little Bear’s excitement at choosing a birthday present for Big Bear. Equally his excitement at helping wrap and hide it. He has no concept of keeping it secret so has told Big Bear several times what the present is and where he can find it!

Project Home Improvement:

It’s finished!! Yeay! It’s beautiful and I love it and the upheaval and hard work was all completely worth it.

There are a couple of things I hadn’t anticipated about open plan living though: although there are definitely positives about being able to keep my eye on the boys all the time, it is a double-edged sword as I can no longer pretend to cook and hide from them in the kitchen!! The constant noise can be a little over-stimulating. Also, Little Bear tends to run around more as the space is bigger. However, I am getting used to these things and just seeing my bright green fridge can do wonders for my mood. The other down side is that the rest of the house looks really shabby in comparison. Time to start phase 2 then! The plans are with the council as we speak so fingers crossed and more about that next time. For now, happy nosing:

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July at Adoption: The Bear Facts