Making a mess of things!


The importance of early developmental play for pupils with SEN

For children who are commonly described as having behavioural difficulties, we know that their personal, social and emotional development is quite significantly delayed. This is often due to a lack of supported learning experiences and nurture during their pre-school years, early chaotic and traumatic experiences or, more often, the impact of both. In order to make good provision to meet the needs of these children and young people, we should, then, be offering those same early experiences to them throughout Key Stages 1 and 2 and on into Key Stage 3 if needed, albeit in an age appropriate way. Therefore, it is important for these pupils that there is clear agreement on what the appropriate experiences are in the Early Years and Foundation Stage (EYFS) so that we can adapt these creatively for older children whose developmental needs include early play experiences.

In the Government’s guidance to EYFS practitioners on implementing Social and Emotional Aspects of Development it states that “Personal, Social and Emotional Development (PSED) are the three building blocks of future success in life” and describes personal development as “being me…..understand[ing] who we are and what we can do” (DCSF, 2008). In short, this relates to our level of self-awareness.

One of the primary ways we develop self awareness is through “messy” play: the kind of play that is self-chosen, experimental, often uncontained and full of essential sensory feedback that helps us to understand how we fit into the physical world around us. It generally involves water, sand, paint, clay or mud, pots, cups, dishes, trays, spoons and lids and a lot of spillage! It is the kind of play many young children do in muddy puddles, in the bath or in the kitchen with left over cooking ingredients. It is the type of play that shows us how we can experience the physical world in a way that enhances our sense of self. It shows us that we can exert mastery and control over the physical world in a positive way that aids both our social and intellectual development. It allows us to develop an understanding of our own body and its capabilities so that we can begin to interact with and relate to others as we develop as social beings.

For those children whose behaviour challenges us, messy play is a crucial activity, as they are highly likely to have missed out on these essential experiences in their pre-school years, leading to a significant delay in their personal, social and emotional development. Drama therapist Dr Sue Jennings has suggested that play develops through early embodiment activities, our primary sensory activities with our main caregiver, such as being fed, held, rocked and soothed. It then develops to incorporate projective play, where we begin to use toys and objects, and then into role play, where we act out what we see happening and experiment with different ways of interacting with others. Although we do not  move seamlessly from one stage to the next, healthy development would normally enable us to reach role play around the age of seven years. However, traumatic interruptions along this pathway prevent children from reaching that understanding of what it is like “to be me”, and leave them unable to form healthy relationships and, therefore, unavailable for learning.

When pupils need these experiences beyond the Foundation Stage, though, many teachers are often reluctant to provide them unless they are adult directed, lead to predetermined outcomes or are part of a specialist SEN programme. They can be reluctant to let children and young people play freely because this kind of self-directed play is seen as something that takes place either in Foundation stage classrooms or in the playground itself, and they fear it will become chaotic and unmanageable if not controlled. Beyond early Key Stage 2, play activities are all too often seen as being inappropriate.

Those schools that make good provision for pupils with social, emotional and behaviour (SEB) needs will have an ethos which recognises the importance of early play experiences; they are able to provide these opportunities through a diverse range of curriculum activities in an open-ended way which takes account of the importance of the process rather than the outcome. Some schools will ensure play and creative arts provision through a nurture group, learning support unit or forest school, or by using  play and creative arts therapists to work with both groups and individual pupils. These schools recognise that those pupils whose SEB needs are complex enough to warrant therapeutic intervention have an entitlement to have these needs met within their school.

Despite the Every Child Matters agenda, many local authorities deny this entitlement to pupils with SEB needs because therapeutic interventions are seen either as being provided by child and adult mental health services, which generally means attendance at an unfamiliar clinical setting, or as something the school needs to buy in, which is therefore dependent on additional funding and resources.

Over the last six years, two teacher therapist colleagues and I have worked with staff groups to develop a greater understanding and appreciation of the role of play and the creative arts in providing a therapeutic space for meeting the needs of pupils with SEB needs in both mainstream and specialist provision and across all key stages. Providing staff with hands-on training has allowed them to experience the power of working creatively and the greater sense of self it can foster. While some have found the very messiness of it challenging, most have been delighted to be reminded of how enjoyable, relaxing and fulfilling arts activities can be when there are no pre-determined outcomes and creativity can flow freely.

Most importantly, participants have used the techniques they have explored on the training with the young people they support and have experienced healthier and more positive relationships for learning developing, as pupils are able to give voice to emotions and experiences in a non verbal, non threatening way. This improved attachment has been shown by Bowlby (1988), Hughes (1998), Geddes (2006) and others to ensure that children and young people are much more consistently available for learning and able to take fuller advantage of the learning opportunities on offer to them, thus increasing the likelihood of them both enjoying and achieving in education.

While there will always be those young people whose life experiences impact on them in such a negative way that they need intensive individual therapy sessions with a qualified therapist, the use of messy play can go a long way to ensure that pupils with SEB needs get the support they are entitled to from those trusted adults they see daily within their school setting.


Further information

Ali Chown is a specialist advisory teacher for pupils with social, emotional and behaviour difficulties and a qualified play therapist. She is also a member of Burning Bird Associates who provide training to teachers and teaching assistants in both specialist and mainstream settings.

Article first published in SEN Magazine issue 46: May/June 2010.

Ali Chown
Author: Ali Chown

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