Children with Intellectual Impairments
Up until the later years of the 1960s, there existed, even among professionals, a serious misconception about the play of children with intellectual impairments. This was the assumption that such children do not play, either because they do not want to or because they do not need to (McConkey, 1985). Fortunately, this belief has been changing gradually over the past 20 years.
Why, when it has become increasingly clear to modern child development professionals that play is an essential ingredient in the lives of children, has the play of the child with an intellectual impairment been ignored? In part, it is because the emphasis of those professionals who work with such children has been on intellectual and educational enrichment; their efforts have been characterized by a decidedly remedial focus rather than an appreciation of basic patterns of child development displayed by children in this special population (McConkey, 1985; Quinn & Rubin, 1984).
The capacity for play of children with intellectual deficits has been underestimated because much of the research on the subject has emphasized differences between those who perform at an average intellectual level and those whose performance is below average. In highlighting the ways in which able and mentally impaired children differed in their play, researchers often failed to emphasize the fact that, the differences notwithstanding, children with cognitive deficiencies do indeed play
Throughout the years there have appeared surprisingly few studies of the uses of toys in free play by children who are mentally impaired. The findings from these studies are that (1) children who are intellectually impaired seem to prefer what might be thought of as structured materials, such as puzzles and jacks, while normal children of the same mental age prefer open-ended materials (e.g., art supplies) that allow them to be creative and imaginative (Horne & Philleo, 1942), and (2) children who are mentally disabled are less likely than children who are able to combine objects appropriately in play (Tilton & Ottinger, 1964; Weiner & Weiner, 1974). Tilton and Ottinger (1964) discovered, for example, that normal children will bring objects together in play, as when they build with blocks, combine cups with saucers, or screw nuts into bolts. Children with disabilities are less likely to do so and instead engage in much nonspecific touching of their toys.
How can one interpret the observed differences in the object play of children of different intellectual abilities? It is difficult to do so, both because there are so few studies and because such studies typically contain methodological flaws. Accurate measures of group differences were difficult to obtain in all three studies because in none were there attempts to distinguish between exploratory behavior and play (Quinn & Rubin, 1984). Since the children were observed only in their first session with the toys, the greater amount of nonspecific touching by the group with cognitive deficits may have indicated only that they were less familiar with the materials. It is possible too that children with deficits need more time than able children to learn how to play and how to use toys; after the novelty of the toys had worn off, both groups might have played with them in similar ways. Interestingly enough, in another study, in which children were observed across extended play periods, object play differences between groups differing in intellectual ability failed to appear at all (Hulme & Lunzer, 1966).
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