Zoom WebinarSPED*NET

Live Presentation Date
June 9, 2020
4:00 to 4:45 p.m.

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Co-sponsored by:
SoNo Branch Library and Wilton SEPTA

Teaching Kids to Play from a Safe Social Distance

As Fairfield County begins to reopen, it is likely that certain safety precautions will remain in place. Options for summer programming remain uncertain, but no matter what this next season looks like, two things are clear.  First, relationships matter and we must find ways to promote socialization for our children during these challenging times.  Second, as “in real life” events slowly return to our calendars, social distancing will remain our best defense for the near future.  So, how can we provide opportunities for our children to thrive socially while teaching them to maintain personal space?  In this webinar, we will review behavior analytic strategies you can use to prepare for our new normal- hanging out from a safe social distance.  

With new rules in place, children will need to learn modified ways of playing the games they love together, while maintaining a social distance. We can help children ease into this new normal by partnering with them to come up with new and creative ways to play.

Use technology to your advantage (See our long distance play dating webinar for more tips and tricks.)  When children cannot get together physically, they still need social interaction. Mr. Rogers so elegantly pointed out that  “play is the work of childhood.” When real-life access to peers is restricted, using technology to set up virtual playdates is the next best thing. Set up a FaceTime or Zoom call for your child and a peer. Teach your child to share screens and use remote access to play fun, multiplayer games with their friends online. Who are we kidding? Kids will likely figure these features out before we can even teach them. Children can virtually play pretend by gathering their own toys and sharing them in front of the camera, interacting with their peers and their peers’ toys.

Encourage associative play with separate materials.  Associative play is a form of play in which children perform a similar activity together without a common goal. Select associative play activities that allow everyone to engage in a mutual activity with their own sets of materials, so there isn’t a need to physically share. For example, younger children can participate in a coloring activity where each child is given a preferred character’s coloring page or book and their own set of identical markers or crayons. As children color, they can comment on  their pictures and each others’.  Other examples include building near each other in a sandbox with separate buckets and shovels.  Or, try riding bikes down the sidewalk!  Everyone enjoys the activity, but a tandem bicycle is not required.  Older children may enjoy craft activities in which they are each given identical materials to create with based off of a preferred, mutual interest. Additional examples include building separate Lego models adjacent to each other or  decorating individual cookies in a group setting.  Children are masters at pretending, and these new rules are just a challenge for them to elevate their pretend play to the next level.

Plan cooperative play activities at a distance.  In contrast to associative play, cooperative play requires children to work  towards a common goal, which typically includes sharing materials. Cooperative play still works for some games with the modification of each child having their own set of materials but still working towards a common goal. Barrier games are a fantastic cooperative game option that require no contact or sharing of materials. Examples of barrier games include guess who, charades, pictionary, and I Spy. Each of these games can easily be played at a distance because there are either two sets of materials and or the game is played without materials and requires listening, language and observation skills to achieve the common goal. There are many other cooperative games that can easily be adapted and played with new social distancing rules. For example, the classic and simple game of hide and seek can be played by eliminating the physical tagging aspect of the game and having the seeker call out the location where the hiders are hiding. This modification allows the players to work on expanding the use of their language to describe where other players are hiding. 

Teach non-verbal greetings in advance.  When stay-at-home restrictions are loosened, children are going to be excited to see each other.  Correction.  They are going to be really excited to see each other.  The urge to connect physically will be strong.  Teach your child new ways to use their bodies to say “it’s so great to see you” in advance, so when the time comes, they already know what to do.  Replace hugs and fist bumps with non-verbal, touch-free greetings instead. To make things even more fun, have friends create a  spin-off of the “secret handshake,” coordinating silly moves and faces instead!

Coming up with alternative activities and rules is the easy part, but how do we teach and reinforce these new socially distant play rules successfully?

Give children a “kid-friendly” rationale.  Children are feeling the effects of the changes happening around them more than we can begin to imagine. This generation will forever remember how their lives were turned upside down.  Access to peers was restricted, extra curricular activities were cancelled, people began wearing masks everywhere, and now, as “real life” events slowly return to our calendars, more restrictions! It is important to communicate with children to help them process why this is all happening, get creative, and inspire hope instead of fear as they return back to schools, activities, and playdates. 

Provide frequent reminders before going into a shared social distanced space.  It’s hard for all of us to remember the new rules.  We are all guilty of scratching an itch on our faces and immediately regretting doing so.  So, we should expect that children will require extra support as they adjust to this new way to play.  Reviewing expectations before entering a social space will increase the likelihood of adherence to today’s rules and norms.  

Use visual cues.  Embed visual cues into the play environment to remind children of personal space rules. Draw chalk boundaries on the driveway, lay out picnic blankets or hula hoops to mark personal play spaces, and set up toys with adequate spacing in between.  

Reinforce appropriate maintenance of space by using behavior-specific praise.  Reinforcing and catching your child following the new social distance play rules is key to ensuring that they maintain over time. Instead of using  vague statements, like “good job” or “I’m proud of you,” point out exactly what your child did correctly.  Making comments such as “I love how you are having fun with your friends and giving lots of personal space” increases the likelihood that your child will continue to demonstrate social distancing skills in the future.  

Listen and be available to answer your child’s questions and concerns. 

This is a scary and unpredictable time for children. Everything they know about play is challenged. They do and will have questions and concerns. Each child will express themselves differently. Verbal children may be direct and ask the questions, or note their worries outright. Lower functioning verbal children may share their worries by asking repetitive questions with an agitated or upset tone or body language, and pre verbal children may exhibit heightened levels of problem behaviors in response to being denied access to things they could previously freely enjoy. Be available to listen. Empathize with your child’s concerns and answer their questions in kid friendly terms. Coach them through it and  help them overcome and adapt. Refrain from making judgements in response to their emotions or questions, because despite how insignificant or silly a question or concern may appear, to your child it is very real and so is the emotion associated with it. Be patient, be kind, and give each other grace. 

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About the Author

About the Author

Justyna Balzar, M.Ed. BCBA LBA (CT) Co-Founder & CEO

Justyna Balzar, M. Ed. BCBA, has a Masters in Curriculum and Education in Applied Behavior Analysis from Arizona State University. She has experience working with individuals with Autism and related disabilities in a variety of settings that include private school, public school, and home programs ranging in age from 3-18 years old. She is constantly seeking avenues to disseminate Behavior Analysis in conversation, presentations, and sharing Behavior Analytic content through her BehaviorChik Facebook page. She enjoys learning and discussing the boundless applications of ABA as they relate to all problems that involve behavior.