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Integrated neighborhood playgroups: creating an environment where friendships can blossom.

I can vividly recall the sunny, warm and heartbreaking Sunday afternoon that I started my first journal. I had heard others say that keeping a journal is therapeutic, and desperate to rid myself of the frustration and sorrow I felt, I purchased a blue, paisley print, hardcover "blank book." Eager to begin this ten-dollar therapy, I put pen to paper and began writing--awkwardly at first--about my feelings and difficulties as I worked at the daunting task of integrating my little blonde beauty into our world.

My daughter, Lauren, experienced her first seizure at three months of age. It was not to be her last. She was eventually diagnosed with an epilepsy syndrome known as Lennox-Gaustaut, along with developmental and language delays. Her behavior was unpredictable, impulsive and often invasive. The neighborhood children who came into contact with Lauren were hesitant and sometimes fearful of her unpredictable nature.

On the day of my first journal entry, I felt particularly defeated. It was the second or third time I had taken Lauren to Sunday school. Katherine, the Sunday school teacher, was very willing to include Lauren in the class; I'd stayed to assist her. Sadly, it became apparent to me that this was not working. Due to Lauren's disruptive and distracting behavior, I needed to remove her from the classroom repeatedly. I recall standing outside with Lauren, peering through the classroom window and praying that she would someday acquire the skills I saw developing in the other children. Although this group of children was one to two years younger than Lauren, the developmental gap seemed insurmountably vast. I left, feeling hopeless and heartbroken.

At home, I wrote in my new journal--"I think I will start a neighborhood playgroup." I never could have imagined the sequence of events that would follow--or their positive impact on Lauren, our family and our neighborhood...

Getting started

I had no road map for beginning this venture, but I forged ahead. Although Lauren did not play with other children, I knew she needed socialization and exposure to the behaviors of typically-developing children. Other mothers become Girl Scout leaders for their daughters; I became a playgroup facilitator so that my daughter could participate in her community.

I decided the playgroup should meet on Friday mornings. I began by inviting two neighborhood children, one boy and one girl, both younger than Lauren. To their parents I explained my motivation and plans for the group. Another neighbor, Sherry, provided child care for neighborhood children; she became a great resource for identifying additional children to include. When one of our regular kids became ill and unable to attend, I would invite one of the children at Sherry's. Eventually, they all became regular members of our group. On school holidays, we would invite their older siblings to join us. They became my "helpers."

The fear of failure was especially present in the early weeks of Lauren's playgroup. Not every session went smoothly. This would make it difficult to prepare for the following week. But my fears slowly resolved as I began to realize that the sessions, no matter how I felt about them, were well-received by the children.

Growing pains

My biggest challenge was to watch the developmental gap widen between Lauren and the other children. It was never easy to watch the younger children's abilities surpass Lauren's. Many times, those feelings made me think about bringing the group to an end.

I was forced to reexamine my goals--this group was for Lauren, not for me. No matter how I felt, I had to realize that the benefits Lauren was receiving from the playgroup greatly outweighed the sense of loss I sometimes experienced.

In a way, the playgroup helped me to become more accepting of Lauren's differences. This was not easy. Initially, I would try to encourage Lauren to imitate the behaviors of the other children. I hoped--somehow--they would not notice she was "different." When Lauren went into "tantrum mode," throwing herself to the ground in front of the kids, I would think, "My God, they are going to notice!"

It took some time to let go of the tendency to try to make Lauren appear "like them," just as it took time for the other children to accept and understand her differences. It's funny--as I write this, I realize the kids were way ahead of me in this respect.

A sense of belonging

We continued to "play"--first on Fridays, then on Saturdays--for nearly four years. Three years after the playgroup began, we moved from the neighborhood, but many of the original participants remained involved with what I called our "playgroup," and what Lauren described as "the kids coming."

Lauren's participation in the playgroup provided her with a sense of belonging. Neighborhood children now greet her enthusiastically. Before the playgroup, these same children headed in the opposite direction upon her approach. Lauren is now a welcome participant in most activities. Through our community's acceptance of our daughter, our entire family has developed that same sense of belonging.

As for me, I have thoroughly enjoyed my role in the lives of these neighborhood children. The playgroup has provided me with an opportunity to see my daughter in a situation that fosters success and belonging. Friendship is a dream we have for all our children; the playgroup became the tool for my "special" child to achieve that dream. As unnatural as it may seem, there are times when we have to create environments in which friendships can develop.

Lauren is now in a school setting that meets her academic and functional needs and makes a significant contribution to her social skills through inclusion opportunities. Her teacher shares my vision of the gifts our children can offer their peers without disabilities. Her belief in inclusion has rekindled my dream for Lauren's full inclusion.

Two years ago, I wrote in my journal: "Perhaps, in the near future, our children will remain where they belong--in their communities, developing natural bonds at neighborhood schools, in their front yards and at Girl Scout meetings; and their lives, along with the lives of their families, will be one of inclusion, not exclusion."

As parents, we can be the driving force to create this opportunity for our children. Through partnerships with friends, neighbors and spouses, a playgroup may be the start of community inclusion for your child.

RELATED ARTICLE: Tips for Creating a Successful Playgroup

* Start with a small group. An initial group of no more than three children, including your child, is a good beginning. If appropriate, you can invite additional children to participate at a later date.

* Explain your child's disability to other parents in as much detail as possible. Do not assume that they already understand your child's condition; even close friends may be cautious about asking questions. Once parents have some details, they become capable of answering questions their child may ask at home.

* Set a regular day and time to meet. This allows the parents of your participants to plan their schedules and increases the likelihood of regular attendance. It also gives you time to prepare for each session--both physically and mentally.

* Prepare a schedule of activities for each session. Having a schedule allows you and the children to have expectations and gives the day some definition. It will also come in handy when one of the children does not want to leave an activity; you can refer to the schedule and say, "Look, the schedule says it's time to do this now."

* Create opportunities for your child to shine. Perhaps your child has mastered a skill and can assist another child. This will provide other children with another view of your child's capabilities.

* Design activities in a way that allows everyone to experience success. For example, some children can practice writing their names while others trace theirs or just practice holding a writing instrument.

* Incorporate your child's IEP goals into your program. A playgroup offers invaluable opportunities for your child to see his or her peers "model" desired behaviors. For example, your child may be working on her IEP goal of tracing a straight line while other childre are tracing letters, writing sentences or practicing cursive writing. The important thing is that all the kids are holding crayons, pens or pencils and writing on paper.

* Promote socialization by pairing children to work together, and by having one child assist another. When pairing children, be prepared to assist them with "cooperation skills."

* Keep notes, project samples, pictures and videotapes of the group. This helps you measure the progress of your group. Your child may enjoy watching the videotapes--Lauren does! You may also want to show them to parents of new children you would like to invite to your group.

* Take time off when needed. If you feel burned out for longer than a few hours after a playgroup session, you may need to examine your schedule and activities, or consider hiring a helper. Teens can often fill the helper role.

* Be kind to yourself. Developing a group takes time, effort and commitment on your part and the part of others. A playgroup evolves over time and through the development of relationships between you and the children. Think of yourself as the conductor of a new group of musicians; it takes time to create harmony in the symphony

RELATED ARTICLE: Want to learn more?

WHERE DO I BEGIN? INTEGRATED NEIGHBORHOOD PLAYGROUPS by Trudy Marsh Grable is a practical, easy-to-read, 85-page manual for developing a neighborhood playgroup that will meet the individual needs of your child and family. Included are suggestions for selecting participants, planning successful activities and handling questions and conflicts. To order, contact PHP--The Family Resource Center, 3041 Olcott St., Santa Clara, CA 95054-3222; (408) 727-5775; e-mail: A $15 donation is suggested (all proceeds benefit PHP's Family Emergency Fund).

With Trudy acting as the trainer, a playgroup training program is available within the state of California. These day-long workshops have been developed through a small grant from the California State Department of Developmental Services. Contact PHP for more information.
COPYRIGHT 1995 EP Global Communications, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1995 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:includes ordering information on playgroup manual
Author:Grable, Trudy Marsh
Publication:The Exceptional Parent
Date:Jul 1, 1995
Previous Article:Respite care and the religious community.
Next Article:Why parents and children with disabilities should have the right to use facilitated communication.

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