In the spirit of professional development, this week I had the opportunity to observe some speech therapists in their work with children. I say ‘in the spirit of’ because they themselves didn’t know that I was studying them — I was in support mode to those I went with. This short study, in this manner, gives me a little more freedom to write up ‘as it is’.
Whilst I don’t doubt the skills of these two therapists at all (I don’t know enough about the occupation to doubt them anyway), I did find it a little amusing and a little disconcerting that one of them had a lisp! However, to her credit she was able to identify how the child in question was speaking and with which area of the mouth the words were being formed. None of this is in question by me. The reason for writing here today is to pick up on something one of the therapists said at the end of the session, and as related to play.
I knew that the speech therapists would work with play to form their initial assessment of the child. I wanted to know how they did this though. The therapist with the lisp sat the child down so that she was faced away from her mother (who the other therapist was talking with all the time). The child was shown a wooden shape-fitting toy, where the pictures had to be fitted into the correct board holes. The therapist asked the child about the pictures; she made a series of notes on what she heard the child reply, sometimes asking the child to repeat it so that she could be clear about what she heard.
The therapist then moved onto a card game and used a bin shaped like a frog to ‘eat’ the cards. She was quite playful here, but the child’s younger brother was also in the room and he wanted to play too. The therapist ignored him (which I thought strange because there was the opportunity to study speech interactions there, I thought).
The therapists had a standard small crate of various plastic and soft toys which were then put in front of the child to play with as the adults all talked. I suspected that the crate wasn’t often just tipped up the way I tipped it up and spread it around so the children could see what was there. Before I even thought what I was doing, I’d done it!
At the end of the session, and here’s my starting off point for this post, in a way, one of the therapists noted that the allotted forty-five minute appointment was up (to the minute), and told the child — rather suddenly, though gently enough — that it was time to go. The children, to me, clearly hadn’t finished playing — though, of course, I recognised this was a different scenario in play to what I’m used to. Even so, I still felt a small wave of something like ‘but I haven’t finished yet’ come from them. The therapist offered a sticker for ‘playing well’.
Here we go: I can’t get my playworker head around this adult phrase. What does ‘playing well’ mean? How can we put a qualitative statement onto somebody else’s play (or onto any play)? If there is such a thing as ‘playing well’, is there also such a thing as ‘playing poorly’? If that’s the case, then there’s also such a thing as every other possible statement in between. I played 73.6% well today, but tomorrow I hope to improve.
OK, so I recognise that ‘playing well’ is, on the one hand, just one of those adult phrases that aren’t said in a literal manner; however, the problem is that a lot of the time the literal sense has attached itself to such throw-away remarks. I’ve heard many people (whether they work with children or not) talk about how children should ‘play well’, by which they presumably mean ‘play agreeably’. Playing ‘agreeably’ might well be agreeable for the adult . . .
‘Playing well’ also makes me think of Victorian sensibilities towards children: that they should be seen and not heard.
Perhaps we could shift the sensibilities of a lot of modern adults by asking them to think about ‘playing well’ differently: rather than being all about how adults want children to be, which leads to adult perceptions of children as currently being noisy, aggressive, rude or disrespectful creatures, ‘playing well’ should be a statement of emotional and psychological health. The child is ‘the playing well’. The child is play-well.
The child can only really be play-well though if the adults (those who work with children, like playworkers and speech therapists; those who are parents; those who don’t work with them; that is, all of us) understand about words.