Integrated Play Groups: Using a Social-Constructivist Approach (page 3)
Pam Wolfberg (1999, 2003) has designed a curriculum for encouraging play between peers with and without autism spectrum disorders. The integrated play groups model aims to maximize the potential of every child with autism to socialize and play with peers within a jointly constructed play culture (Wolfberg, 2003). By including typical peers, ideally from the same community as the child with autism, the learner becomes acquainted with peer culture and the expectations of a cultural member (Rogoff, 1990).
Influenced by multiple theorists, Dr. Wolfberg states that Vygotsky was a major source of inspiration. Vygotsky emphasized the importance of peers in the development of socialization and introduction to a peer culture (Vygotsky, 1978). The notion of “guided participation,” from Vygotsky, is also included as the key role of the educator facilitating the groups (Wolfberg, 2003). It is recommended that the integrated play groups are comprised of a higher ratio of expert players (those without disabilities) to novice players (children with autism spectrum disorder) and a play guide (e.g., special education teacher) and assistant who meet twice a week or more for 30 minutes to an hour for 6 to 12 months (Wolfberg, 2003). Play guides facilitate the play by monitoring play initiations, scaffolding play, and using social- communication guidance to elicit and sustain joint engagement in activities that are enjoyed by the interacting group members (Wolfberg, 2003).
A self-evaluation form for the play guide also is included. When evaluating their own performance, the play guide can determine if they are using the suggested social communication cues such as helping a child to initiate by modeling pointing to a game and saying, “Let’s play” or having the child stand close to another peer and ask for a turn (Wolfberg, 2003).
Research on outcomes has been limited to case studies from the skilled guidance of the author and that of her student (O’Connor, 1999) or other graduate students at San Francisco State University (Zercher, Hunt, Schuler, & Webster, 2001). They have reported increases in functional and symbolic play, less isolated and stereotypic play, and more diverse play following the integrated play groups (O’Connor, 1999; Wolfberg & Schuler, 1993), with skills generalizing to other peers, settings, and social contexts for at least three novice players (Wolfberg & Schuler, 1993). Replications such as the case study reported by Lantz, Nelson, and Loftin (2004) are needed in order to determine the extent to which these groups are helpful and the generalization of play skills beyond the peers included. Wolfberg (2003) states that the first decision to be made by the stakeholder team is whether or not an integrated play group is a good choice of intervention. Additional research on outcomes addressing the factors that contribute to any successes would assist in.
In the TEACCH approach the most important priority is making social interactions enjoyable, and the best way to do this is to incorporate the interests and understanding of the participants (Mesibov et al., 2004). Highly structured groups are used with the visual supports needed to facilitate learning, such as charts, checklists, and scripts. Instead of prompting or scaffolding by educators, the group members are assisted with participation through the use of visual structure. Positive social experiences are arranged in contexts that are highly motivating to the learners with autism spectrum disorders (Mesibov et al.).
Greenspan and Wieder (2000) suggest that once a child is fully interactive and engaged with an adult, then play with one other peer should begin. Parents would act as mediators to encourage engagement and interaction. A peer who is interactive and verbal and who can model play and encourage the child with ASD is best to invite (Greenspan & Wieder). Play dates should occur three to four times per week as soon as possible.
Gutstein and Sheely recommend that when groups of peers with and without autism spectrum disorder are created, any peers or partners should share the same level of competence so that no one learner feels less capable than another. The authors state, “matching persons with equal development and then placing them together in dyads or groups to help each other learn, leads to the development of intensely powerful emotional bonds” (Gutstein & Sheely, 2002b, p. 29).
Without research outcomes it is difficult to know whether or not the detailed and well-thought-out curriculum designed by Gutstein and Sheely (2002a & b) is effective or which learners with which characteristics are most likely to benefit from the curriculum. Wolfberg suggests that groups are comprised of more capable typical peers (2003). Greenspan and Wieder agree that the play partner should be more capable but suggest starting with one peer (2000). Gustein and Sheely (2002b) suggest that peers should be at the same competence level. Which configuration for a group works best, for which skills? How does the role of a coach, mediator, or play guide differ, and which aspects do they share? It is recommended that educators look to research for evidence regarding these questions. Replications by researchers and practitioners other than the authors are necessary if the strategies are to be considered evidence based (Odom et al., 2004).
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