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Play and social interaction of children with disabilities at learning/activity centers in an inclusive preschool.

Abstract

This study of nine preschool children with disabilities in an inclusive program with typical peers examined the types of play and social interactions in which they engaged in their chosen learning/activity centers. The following learning centers were used in this study: art (paints and drawing materials); creative expression (making teacher-directed products using cutting); writing (typewriter, letter writing, and printing materials); housekeeping/dress-up (kitchen setup, various apparel); computer (software programs); woodworking (hammers, wood blocks, and foam blocks); Lego[R] (multi-colored blocks); and science (nature materials). Findings indicated differences among the children in the amount of time they spent in various centers, the number of different types of play in which they engaged, and in the amount of time spent in play of various types. The children also differed in the number of observed segments in which peers (typical and atypical) were present, number/type of peer interaction even ts, number of segments in which teachers were present, and number/type of teacher interaction events. Children with various types of disabilities had different patterns of play, and case study examples describe some of these differences. Implications for practice include the effects of teacher presence in centers as catalysts for involvement of children with disabilities, and the importance of teacher awareness about the influence of individual child preferences, and type and extent of disability, on their play experiences. Suggestions for teacher facilitation of peer interactions to extend their length and social complexity are given.

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More and more preschool programs are embracing the philosophy of integrating children with disabilities and their typically developing peers; publicly funded programs, in fact, are mandated to do so (Brown, Bergen, House, Hittle, & Dickerson, 2000; Hanson, Guttierrez, Morgan, Brennan, & Zercher, 1997). The philosophy of inclusive programs includes two social dimensions. First, proponents believe it is essential to encourage social interactions between children with disabilities and their typical peers, and they cite research studies showing that inclusive programs promote such social interactions and may lead to greater learning (e.g., Peck, Carlson, & Helmstetter, 1992; Staub & Peck, 1994/1995). Second, an "inclusionary" philosophy assumes that these social interactions in integrated settings promote overall social competence, and proponents believe this to be an especially important goal for children with disabilities, whatever their cognitive or maturational levels.

Social competence has been defined as the ability to make appropriate social choices when confronted with a variety of environmental options (Guralnick & Neville, 1997). Proponents of inclusive preschools assert that the social competence of children with disabilities develops through their daily interactions with peers who are typically developing (as well as with teachers and other adults in the setting). Moreover, because of the observational learning process (Bandura, 1997), such interactions subsequently improve communication, social/affective, and gross motor skills. Thus, children with disabilities can use peer observation and peer interaction in various social settings or learning/activity centers to practice social skills.

Thus, preschool settings that promote inclusionary practices may allow for a stronger support system to children with disabilities by providing them with peer models of play, social interactions, and language development; showing them more sophisticated behaviors within peer play and social interactions; engaging them in a more stimulating environment made up of colorful play objects and engaging learning center materials; and enhancing teacher facilitation of peer interaction skills through nonintrusive verbal or nonverbal assistance (e.g., verbal prompts), so that greater social interaction may be fostered (Amado, 1993; Hanline, 1993; Odom & Brown, 1993).

Numerous research studies have found, however, that there is great variation in how well inclusion settings promote social interactions between children with disabilities and their peers (Odom, 2000). There are also differences in how effectively the environment encourages such play (see Mindes, 1998). Although some studies show typical peers as the ones initiating interactions, other studies show peer preferences for alike peers, while a few show social rejection of special needs children (see Odom & Diamond, 1998, for a review of such studies).

For example, some studies (e.g., Cole, Mills, Jenkin, & Dale, 1998; Hundert, Mahoney, Mundy, & Vernon, 1998) suggest that social interaction rates for children with a variety of disabilities (i.e., mild to severe) were higher in settings where there were typically developing children, noting that the presence of typically developing children made for greater involvement for all children in a sustained cooperative play event, and that the typical peers took a leadership role in initiating these events. However, this increased social interaction does not always advance the social skills of the children with disabilities (Guralnick, 2001). Further research (e.g., Buysse, Bailey, Smith, & Simeonsson, 1994) has suggested that for children with more severe disabilities, the general education classroom may not be the least restrictive environment and may not adequately address the social or academic needs of such children.

Creating a Community of Learners Through the Inclusionary Process

The inclusionary benefits for typically developing children also have been stressed in promoting integrated environments that create a caring "community of learners" (Swartz, 1996). Children who are typically developing may become more sensitized and aware of others who display social or intellectual differences if they are exposed to peers with disabilities at an early age. Exposure to such children at an early age may decrease high levels of anxiety, which might otherwise lead to social avoidance, and integrated experiences can motivate children to behave morally and ethically in regard to the treatment of others who are perceived as "different."

Past studies that have examined some factors that might influence the social process between children in inclusive preschool settings have had mixed findings (Guralnick, 2001). The play styles of children with disabilities may have been a contributing factor. For example, the manipulative play (i.e., practice play) of children with disabilities may be more repetitive and unimaginative, lacking creativity or spontaneity (Li, 1985). Also, when children with disabilities do show imaginative play, the themes are often less complex and contain disconnected story elements (Goldstein & Cisar, 1992).

Other studies, however, have suggested that preschoolers with disabilities can generate higher levels of play and social interaction in such settings (File, 1994; File & Kontos, 1993; Lamorey & Bricker, 1993). This may be a function of the children's mental age, however, because Hellendoorn and Hoekman (1992) found that older children with mental retardation did not differ markedly in play patterns or in their level of imagination from typical young children with the same mental age.

Environmental Factors Affecting Child Play and Social Interaction

Environmental factors, such as type of classroom, the presence of certain types of toys, the existence of learning/activity centers, and types of teacher interactions also influence the level of engagement of children in inclusive settings.

Type of classroom. Cole, Mills, Jenkins, and Dale (1998) examined three levels of classroom models for inclusion (special education, integrated special education, and mainstreamed classrooms) to examine the growth of cognitive and language development. In integrated classroom settings, typical children and higher functioning preschoolers with disabilities demonstrated improvement in language and intellectual development, while low functioning preschoolers with disabilities benefited equally from special education classes or full inclusion models.

Sontag (1997) looked at a noninclusive classroom and a community-based inclusive classroom to see the relationship between the physical characteristics of the classroom and the level of child sociability, and found no difference in the sociability level of children who interacted in either classroom. However, children from both groups spent more time interacting with teachers than with peers. A significant relationship was found between a child's level of sociability and teacher prompting. Teachers' verbal prompting was directly related to children's verbal behavior in either group. Group size also affected whether or not children talked more frequently to peers, with all children increasing their verbal interaction when they were engaged in a small-group activity.

Presence of social toys. The types of toys available in a setting have been studied extensively, showing that children with disabilities demonstrate more social interaction when manipulatives that foster social interaction are incorporated into a play activity or peer social event. A study by Beckman and Kohl (1987) examined the relationship between the use of social toys (e.g., block, ball, puppets) or isolate toys (e.g., clay, books, puzzles), and found that children with disabilities participated in more cooperative social behavior when only social toys were available. Recent studies support the earlier finding. For example, Ivory and McCollum (1999) evaluated the effects of social and isolate toys on the social play of children with disabilities who were in an inclusive classroom, and found that these children were more likely to play cooperatively with peers when social toys were present.

Learning/activity centers. Another approach that may encourage children's social interactions with typical peers, as well as their greater engagement with materials and activities, is to provide learning/activity centers in the environment that invite both children with special needs and their peers to participate together. Nabors, Badawi, and Cheney (1997) examined specific factors relating to preschool children's involvement in learning/activity centers and found that there were differences in the types of play engaged in by children with disabilities and their peers. The learning centers of most interest to children with disabilities were art, blocks, science, household, and cooking, with art being the most common activity. Conversely, they spent a minimal amount of time in centers for music, sand, woodworking, science, and the grocery store. Overall, they spent the least amount of time in cooperative peer play, interacted more with teachers, and spent the most time at centers that were teacher directed (e .g., art).

Kontos, Moore, and Giorgetti (1998) addressed the ecology of inclusion by comparing preschoolers with mild to moderate disabilities with peers during free-time play (when learning/activity centers were available). They found that children with disabilities used some form of manipulatives 25% of the time, were involved in non-play activities 23% of the time, and engaged in peer interaction 73% of the time. Theywere most likely to be involved with a group of peers when a teacher was present (43% of the time).

Effects of teacher interactions. As noted in many of these studies, teacher interactions affected child participation in learning/activity centers. For example, Sontag (1997) found teacher effects across classroom program types, with teacher verbal prompting affecting children's social interaction in both inclusive and noninclusive programs. Nabors et al. (1997) found that teacher-directed learning/activity centers attracted more children with disabilities. Their field notes also indicated that teachers facilitated the entry of such children into peer social events through various strategies (e.g., creating a supporting role for the child in the context of a learning center or activity). Kontos et al. (1998) also found that children with disabilities were drawn to group activities in which teachers were present.

Rationale for the Present Study

Although many preschool programs use learning/activity centers, few have systematically evaluated how attractive particular centers are to children with disabilities or how successful they are in engaging these children in interactions with their typically developing peers. Moreover, with the exception of the studies described earlier, contextual factors such as the presence of adults or peers in the learning/activity centers, which may affect the social play of children with various types or severity of disabilities, have rarely been noted. Teachers often assume that any learning/activity center in an inclusive preschool setting is socially and academically beneficial for all children in the setting. However, as the few studies that have investigated centers report, the type of materials that are available, and the presence of adults and peers, seem to influence the types of play as well as the duration of sustained play. The dynamics involved in these child/contextual interactions have received little atten tion.

Thus, there is a need for more study of the learning/activity center approach as a facilitative mechanism in inclusion settings, especially in relation to the ways centers may facilitate the play and social development of children with disabilities. There also is a need to examine the behavior of individual children with varied disabilities, in order to learn more about what specific strengths and challenges particular learning/activity centers may provide. The purpose of this study was to provide additional insights into the understanding of these issues. This study addressed the following questions:

1. What are the types and amounts of play engaged in by children with disabilities in the learning/activity centers of an inclusive preschool?

2. What are the social interaction patterns engaged in by children with disabilities in this setting?

3. What specific learning/activity centers seem more likely to foster play and social interactions between children with disabilities and their peers without disabilities?

4. What is the contribution of the adults to the play and social interaction of the children in this setting?

Method

Subjects and Setting

The setting for the study was a preschool program in a primarily rural area of the midwestern United States. This program has a strong philosophy of inclusion, and the educators intended to foster the play and social integration of children with disabilities through provision of learning/activity centers during the approximately one hour-long period of free-choice play. The centers are accessible to children from both the regular preschool program and the early intervention preschool program, which are located contiguously on the site. Although each group does some activities separately, they are together during breakfast and snack time, for part of the daily group time, and during learning/activity center time. The subjects for the study were 9 of the 12 children with disabilities and 18 of the 20 typical peers in the program. These children's parents gave permission for videotaping the learning/activity center portion of the day. The types of disabilities that had been identified in the children in the earl y intervention program included speech delay (6 children), behavioral/adaptive problems (8 children), vision/sensory deficits (2 children), motor deficits (3 children), and cognitive delays (5 children); all the children exhibited in at least two of these disability areas and a few exhibited in three to five of the disability areas.

Procedures

Data from nine learning/activity centers were included in the study. The centers were: art (children had to wear smocks before they could either paint or use drawing materials); creative expression (teacher-directed activities that allowed children to create a product through cutting, pasting, and drawing); writing (a place where children could use a typewriter, write memos, or talk on the phone); housekeeping/dress-up (a side by side area consisting of a table, chairs, a stove, plastic food, and utensils where children made and tasted each other's food; the other areas consisted of various types of dresses and outfits, along with a mirror, clothing stand, and shoes); water play (a table with containers of water, sand, or rice, as well as funnels, eggbeaters, and plastic toys for the children to manipulate); computer (a five-minute time limit was given for children to use interactive reading or math programs); woodworking (consisting of along, wooden table with a clamp for holding in place a real or an artifi cial piece of wood with which the child could use a real or plastic saw); Lego [R] table (colorful table made up of plastic Lego [R] blocks of various sizes for creating objects); and science (where children could use, for example, a magnifying glass to examine fossils, a bird's nest, or tree bark).

During five free-choice sessions, the focal centers were videotaped on a preselected random order schedule. Each center was videotaped for approximately 10 minutes on three occasions, resulting in an average of 33 minutes of tape from each center. During the videotaping periods, the camera was focused unobtrusively on each focal center in order to record the children's activities. Three learning centers (game area, block area, and gross motor room) were not used in this study, because both the block area and game area were not randomly videotaped for an entire 30-minute period. The gross motor room's large area made it difficult to videotape students, who were constantly riding around on their three-wheelers to various areas of the room. No attempt was made to bring children with disabilities or typical children into the center being videotaped; rather, the children were free to follow their interests during the videotaping period. The adults (teachers and volunteers) were videotaped if they were present in t he focal center, but they were encouraged to maintain their routines during the taping.

Analysis of the data included both quantitative and qualitative methods. An event sampling technique was used to code the events observed on the videotapes for each center. For each videotaped segment, play events were coded using the cognitive types of play identified by Piaget (1962) (practice, pretend, games with rules) and the social play categories of Parten (1932) (unoccupied, onlooking, solitary, parallel, associative, cooperative). (See Bergen, 1998, for a theoretical rationale.) Events also were coded for length of time spent in each cognitive and social type of play, as well as for overall play versus non-play, and percentages were derived for these. The presence/absence of adults and/or peers in each segment of tape was noted, and the number of interaction events with adults and with typical and/or atypical peers in the settings was also counted.

The coding was done by the researchers and two undergraduate research assistants, who were trained for reliability of agreement (agree/agree + disagree). Coders were first trained to measure the reliability of agreement on three center segments, and a reliability check was again made at the halfway point in coding. Agreements ranged from 85%-95%, depending on the dimension being coded. One-sample t tests were conducted on the variables of interest to see whether the children differed in their behaviors during the learning/activity center time period. Qualitative analysis consisted of the generation of case examples of different levels and types of play and social interactions of the children; it also explained their varied interests and types or extensiveness of disabilities.

Results

Results are reported for the four questions of interest and examples, illustrating the differences noted among the children with disabilities.

Types and Amounts of Play of Children With Disabilities in the Learning/Activity Centers The group of children with disabilities was observed engaging in some type of play for 56.6% of the center time. They were in the centers but not playing (e.g., getting directions or help from teacher, or unoccupied) for 17.8% of the observation time, and they were not in the centers at all during 25.6% of the observation time. The percentages of time (from total observation time) spent in various centers by the group of children are shown in Figure 1.

There was a significant difference among the group in the percent of time spent in the various centers, t (1,8) = 2.986, p <.05; in the amount of overall center play time that was observed for each child, t (8) = 4.836, p <.001; and in the amount of time they were observed as present but not playing (unoccupied, being given functional assistance), t (8) = 3.271, p < .01. There was also a significant difference among the children in the percent of time they played of the total time they were observed, t (8) = l7.7l7, p <.001. That is, individual differences in the children's behavior were highly evident. Some of them engaged in center activity regularly, spending the majority of their time at one or two centers, while others "traveled" and spent little time in any one center. For example, one child (Jim) accounted for two-thirds of the play time observed at the computer center; another (Danny) accounted for all of the Lego time and two-thirds of the writing center time observed. Three children (Chip, Danny, an d Bill) accounted for 80% of the time spent in the art center, and two children (Bill and Jake) accounted for 50% of the time spent in the creative expression center.

Of the cognitive types of play observed, 14.6% was practice play, 41.8% was symbolic play (including use of symbolic materials in art/creative expression and pretend activities in house/dress-up area), and 5.1% was game play (primarily computer games). There was also a significant difference among the children in the number of different play types in which they engaged, t (8) = 9.899, p <.001; the time spent in practice play, t(8) = 3.466, p <.01; and the time spent in symbolic play, t (8) = 3.759, p <.01. Figure 2 shows these differences.

Social Interaction Patterns Engaged in by Children With Disabilities

Of the segments videotaped at the center, 94% of them showed visits by typical peers and 90% showed visits by children with disabilities. Seventy-four percent of the center segments showed both typical and atypical peers present at the same time. Peer interaction did not occur in all of the segments with peers present, nor with all of the children. Peer interaction events for various children with disabilities ranged from 0 to 8, with a mean of 2.9. Most of the peer interactions were with typical peers. However, these interactions were brief, with none being sustained for more than 1 minute. There was a significant difference among the group of children in number of observed segments in which peers were present, t (8) = 23.143, p <.001; in which typical peers were present, t (8) = 21.205, p <.001; and in number of peer interaction events, t (8) = 3.951, p <.01. The mean of total peer interactions also significantly differed among the children, t (8) 21.543, p < .001.

Teachers were present in 100% of the segments at the art, creative expression, woodworking, and computer centers; 66% of the segments at the water center; and 33% of the segments at the writing and science centers. They were never present during the videotaping at the house/dress-up center or the Lego center. Teachers engaged in interaction with children with disabilities more often than did peers, with instances of interaction ranging for various children from 3 to 12, with a mean of 6.4 instances. There was a significant difference among the group of children in number of observed segments in which teachers were present, t (8) = 14.913, p <.001, and in number of events in which there was teacher interaction, t (8) = 6.932, p <.001. The mean of total adult interactions also significantly differed among the children, t (8) = 16.473, p <001.

Influence of Specific Learning/Activity Centers on Peer Play

The types of social interactions most often observed with peers were associative or brief cooperative play episodes. The mean total for social play (either associative or cooperative; with adults or with peers) was significantly different among the children, t (8) = 4.667, p < .01. Social interactions were primarily nonverbal with peers, which is not surprising, as many of the children had language delays. The centers where most associative or cooperative play with peers occurred were water, computer, and house/dress-up; and the ones where the most parallel play occurred were art, creative expression, and woodworking. Interestingly, adults were not present consistently in the three centers where most social play with peers occurred.

Contribution of the Adults to the Play and Social Interactions of Children

Although adults were present in many of the centers during the entire videotape segment, no instances of adult facilitation of peer play were observed in any of the center segments. Adult interactions with the children with disabilities were primarily directed toward helping children perform the particular activities of that center, rather than in enhancing peer interaction. This was especially notable in the events coded as parallel play, in which the adults focused on the individual children's involvement in the activity but did not initiate peer interaction or draw attention to peer presence. Many of the adult interactions with children with disabilities occurred in the non-play moments and involved routine caregiving, or they were accompaniments to the children's play, such as giving assistance with play materials (e.g., holding paper and giving directions for cutting). The adults seemed to be focused on "functional" assistance rather than "social" assistance, especially for those children with more exten sive disabilities.

Examples of Play and Social Interactions The following examples serve to illustrate the study's findings regarding the dynamics of interaction.

Example 1. Associative interaction with typical peer. Jim (a 5-year-old male with speech, cognitive, and adaptive delays) enters the computer area, sits in a chair, and watches a typical female peer using the mouse to "paint" the picture on the screen. He looks at the picture and laughs. The peer laughs too, while looking at Jim and smiling. She then returns her attention to the screen and Jim waits patiently for his turn, along with a male typical peer.

Example 2. Parallel play with typical peers; facilitative functional interaction with teacher. Bill (a 4-year-old male with speech delays and ambulatory difficulties) is seated at the art center with four typical peers (2 male, 2 female). All begin to finger paint except for Bill. The teacher stands behind Bill and moves her hands over his to assist him. She places two dabs of finger paint on the paper and, after her demonstration, Bill moves the paint with his fingers and mixes the colors. The typical peers and Bill all continue to paint on their papers independently while the teacher observes.

Example 3. Brief cooperative play with typical peer. John (6-year-old nonverbal male with Rubenstein-Taylor syndrome) and a typical peer are at the water center. The typical peer pours water from a plastic bottle into a bigger plastic bottle while John observes. John puts water in his bottle and attempts to assist his peer by pouring water into the bigger bottle. The two children cooperate in filling the bigger bottle, then pour the water out. The peer then leaves the water center and John watches him go. Then John puts his bottle back in the water and leaves.

Example 4. Parallel play of atypical peers, associative interaction with typical peer, teacher facilitation of play. The teacher leads Amy (a 4-year-old female who is visually impaired) to the water center and encourages her to move her hands in the water. As Amy touches various floating objects, the teacher asks her, "Do you like the water?" Amy does not respond. Another teacher guides Bill to the water center and positions him so that he can reach the water to play independently. Amy begins to make "waves" in the water and says, "I'm playing." A typical female peer observes, walks over, and also begins to move her hands in the water. She then walks away. John (a 6-year-old nonverbal male with Rubenstein-Taylor syndrome) walks to the center and observes the water play, then walks away.

Example 5. Teacher associative interaction with typical and atypical peers. A typical peer is seated at the writing center, pressing the typewriter keys and examining the typewriter. The teacher walks by and kneels down to ask him if he is going to write something. He replies that he is. Chip (a 5-year-old male with delays in the area of speech and cognition, as well as adaptive and social-emotional problems) arrives in the center and sees the teacher. He sits on the teacher's lap and she initiates a conversation with him, using the phone.

Example 6. Non-play associative interaction of typical peer with atypical peer. It is "clean-up time" and the teacher has put Bill (a 4-year-old male with speech delays and ambulatory difficulties) on the floor so he can crawl over to the circle area. He starts crawling toward the circle slowly. A typical female peer sees Bill crawling and tries to lift him. As he is too heavy for her to do so, another teacher picks up Bill and carries him to the circle.

Example 7. Onlooking, parallel, and associative play of typical and atypical peers. In the house/dress-up area, six typical children are dressing up. Chip (a 5-year-old male with delays in the areas of speech and cognition, as well as adaptive and social-emotional problems) enters and "dresses" by putting a rope around his waist, then twirls the rope in the air. Danny (a 6-year-old male with social-emotional problems) enters and crawls to a typical peer, panting like a dog. He "charges" and the typical peer briefly reacts. Jim (a 5-year-old male with speech, cognitive, and adaptive delays) enters and watches the others, laughing at their antics. Chip and Danny leave; Danny returns with a typical peer for a brief interaction before the teacher calls his name.

Effects of Extent of Disability on the Play of Children With Special Needs

There did appear to be a number of centers that were favored by children with different types and extent of disabilities, and there were some variations in the amount of play and non-play activities among these two groups of children. Because of the small sample size, it is not possible to give definitive answers as to whether interest and personality differences or disability differences were responsible for the great variation in children's choices of activities, peer interactions, and adult involvement in their play. Figure 3 gives some examples of the different patterns of learning/activity center play engaged in by four children with different levels of disability. As is evident, Amy and Kyle (who had a number of severe disabilities) visited fewer centers and spent less overall time in play than did Danny and Chip (who had fewer and less severe areas of disability).

Discussion and Conclusions

Contextual factors in inclusive preschools may strongly influence how effectively the environment facilitates the development of children with disabilities. This study of the contexts of learning/activity centers and adult/peer presence in an inclusive preschool gives some glimpses of how the dynamics of such an environment may work (or not work) to further the cognitive and/or social development of a child with a disability.

The high instance of symbolic play found among some of the children with disabilities was not due to pretend experiences but rather to the researchers' decision to code art and creative expression experiences that were adult-directed as symbolic rather than practice activities. Although the activities had symbolic components, whether or not the children who were encouraged to engage in these activities actually understood their symbolic nature is unknown. Pretend play was observed in only two of the subjects, and that was of a very brief nature. There were no instances of adults attempting to encourage pretend play with the children who had disabilities, and although the tapes had many instances of typical peer pretend play, this play either did not include children with disabilities or it engaged them only in a peripheral manner.

In general, the findings support previous studies showing that the centers in which the teachers are present are the ones to which many children with disabilities are drawn. The fact that the greatest time in play was spent in the adult-directed centers is not surprising, especially for children with disabilities. It may be useful for adults to think about how their presence and actions in centers that they do not frequent as much (e.g., house, science, writing, Lego) might increase the attractiveness of these centers to these children and thus extend their play range. Although the adults in this program were very responsive to the needs of all children, they did little to facilitate directly the social interaction of atypical and typical peers. They may have thought that the presence of both sets of children would facilitate these interactions; while the examples show that this did happen to some extent, these social interactions were very brief. Consequently, none of the nine learning centers by themselves were able to consistently facilitate social interaction between children with disabilities and children without disabilities.

Earlier research (Sontag, 1997) showing the usefulness of adult direct facilitation of peer interactions suggests that even when the environment is set up to encourage such interactions, adults may need to take more initiative not only in promoting them but also extending their time length. For example, because more than half of the children with disabilities had language delays, the adults from this study might have facilitated communication strategies by designing some center activities that encouraged more verbal or gestural responses. This could be facilitated by making books with photographs of children in various kinds of play. The teacher could read the book over and over until the child had learned all of the play sequences. In addition, a voice output communication device (i.e., a box that displays specific word icons that, when pushed, would state a recorded message) could be placed directly at a learning center. Children with a language delay could be encouraged to use this assistive device when at tempting to communicate with another peer at a learning center. Teachers also might set up activities that require two children to engage simultaneously in an activity to achieve a specific outcome or product. For example, children working in pairs might be asked to fill two colored plastic containers at specific levels of fullness and then compare the amount of water in each plastic container. Such proactive facilitation of social interaction could further the development of a true "community of learners." This setting had some of the characteristics of such a community, with positive interactions and helping behaviors evident (i.e., in terms of adult assistance with activity involvement and associative play). It appears that a conscious effort on adults' part to further the peer interaction, which is a goal of inclusive settings, may be necessary to extend peer interaction.

While differences in disability level alone did not predict which centers would be of most interest, certain children with less mobility tended to stay in adult-facilitated centers. There were great individual differences in the centers selected by children, which may have been due to child disability type, child interest, and child personality (e.g., outgoing, quiet); or perhaps it was due to adult decisions about how they direct or assist children with mobility or sensory problems to use particular centers. For example, the child with vision deficits was escorted by an adult at all times, and there were only a few centers to which she was led. While the small sample size limited the researchers' ability to look for significant differences specifically related to children's type and extent of disability, there do appear to be child-distinctive styles of interaction in the learning/activity center environment and with peers and adults in the setting. For example, in the woodworking center, the teacher would h elp a child with a disability to place a piece of wood on the metal clamp. The teacher then would help the child place the nail directly on the wood and hammer it in. Other children with disabilities who had greater gross motor difficulties used a Styrofoam piece of "wood" and plastic nails.

Systematic study of the dynamics of center interaction can inform teachers and parents about the aspects of the preschool environment that are working most effectively, and may provide guidance for them in making the environment most facilitative and developmentally appropriate for all children. This preschool has taken important steps to implement an inclusive environment that, on the whole, seems effective for children with disabilities. Careful study of the actual play experiences and peer interactions occurring in such settings is warranted, however. The information from this study provides a small glimpse at the dynamics that need further study if the inclusive approach is to be effective for all children.

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Acknowledgement. The authors wish to thank the teachers, parents, and children of the inclusive preschool in which the study took place. Their interest and cooperation made the study possible. Requests for reprints should be sent to the first author, Mark Brown, Eastern Illinois University Department of Special Education, 1212 Buzzard Hall, 600 Lincoln Ave., Charleston, IL 61920-3099.
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Author:Bergen, Doris
Publication:Journal of Research in Childhood Education
Date:Sep 22, 2002
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