For the last four years, I’ve been teaching a social skills curriculum at a local preschool. The curriculum is called “Second Step”, and it’s full of all kinds of good stuff. Mostly, I teach the lessons in the order laid out in the curriculum. Occasionally, one of the teachers at the school will approach me with a concern (my students are having trouble sharing, my students are experimenting with bad words, etc.) and I’ll use my “Friendship Circle” inclusive lesson to address whatever is happening in the classroom.
Without fail, each spring the teachers will let me know that it’s time to teach the inclusion lesson. A lot happens in the spring. The snow melts. The flowers bloom. The birds return. And the kids start saying, “I don’t want to play with you.”
While we do teach, model and encourage inclusion year-round… my favorite inclusive lesson is centered around a book called Can I Play Too? by Mo Willem.
In this book, the two main characters (Elephant and Piggy) are just about to commence a game of catch, when they are approached by their friend Snake. Snake asks, “Can I play too?” Elephant and Piggy are baffled by the request… because, of course, Snake has no arms.
But the three friends try valiantly to find a way to include their friend in the game.
The illustrations in this book are hilarious. By the time I’m halfway through the book, the kids are rolling on the floor laughing. (The teachers are laughing too. Trust me, this book is a must-read.) However, after trying every solution they can possibly think of, poor Snake is on the verge of giving up. With a crestfallen look on his face, he says, “Well, I guess I can’t play after all.”
The room is silent. I pause. All eyes are on me. Their faces mirror the disappointment that Snake is feeling at the prospect of being left out of the game. Snake had tried SO HARD to participate in the game. Were they going to give up now?!? It didn’t seem fair. So I ask the child next to me, “Snake looks so sad. Why is he so sad?”
The child replies, “He really wanted to play with Elephant and Piggy, but they can’t figure out how he can play catch.”
I say, “You’re right. He really wants to play, and now he’s starting to feel excluded. What do you think they can do? How can they solve the problem?”
And with that, a new energy takes over the group. Hands shoot up in the air and ideas are released with enormous power and enthusiasm. Snake can catch with his tail. Snake can hit the ball back with his head. They could roll the ball instead of throw, and Snake could block it with his body. They could play a different game. Not one child suggested giving up on Snake. Not one child suggested that Snake sit on the sideline and watch, or that Snake should find someone else to play with. They were invested in Snake, and determined to find a way to include him.
Back to the book. Just as Snake is about to slither off by himself, Piggy plants her arms on her little round hips and proclaims, “WAIT! I want to play catch with my friends. YOU are my friend. I want to play catch with YOU!!”
I pause again. It’s so quiet you can hear a pin drop. I say, “Piggy is a GOOD FRIEND. She knows that Snake wants to play. She knows that Snake is feeling sad. She doesn’t want her friend to feel sad and excluded. She’s not going to give up until she solves the problem.” The kids are nodding in agreement as I speak. Finally, I turn the page. There is a light bulb over Piggy’s head. I turn to the final page. Piggy has come up with a solution. (Don’t worry. I won’t spoil it. Run, don’t walk, to your nearest bookstore/library. I’m serious. You HAVE to read this book!)
The room is lit up with smiles. I take one more opportunity to remind the children that they have chances every day to be a good friend like Piggy. Invite a friend to join in. Find a way for everyone to participate. Be a good problem solver. Don’t say, “I don’t want to play with you.”
It’s an ongoing process. It takes more than just a story once a year. It takes ongoing conversations, lots of repetition, and continuously sending the message that everyone’s feelings are important. And, that everyone has the power to be inclusive.
MEANWHILE ACROSS TOWN IN MY KID’S CLASSROOM….
A few days ago, G’s teacher sent an email that they were getting a new friend in their class. We should all be welcoming to our new friend, Evan. As a room parent, I’m on the look-out at drop-off and pick-up, so I can connect with the new parents.
Today at drop-off, Evan is escorted into the classroom by a Special Ed teacher. The teacher helps Evan hang up his coat and put his lunch box in his cubby. Then, she guides him to the carpet where a group of children are playing with blocks. Evan immediately reaches in and grabs a block out of another boy’s hand.
The teacher gently removes the block from Evan’s hand and returns it to the boy (we’ll call him Greg). With a kind and soothing voice, the teacher tells Greg, “Evan is learning the rules of this classroom. You need to help him learn by telling him if he does something you don’t like. Evan really wants to be here, and he wants to be your friend. Can you help him?”
Greg says, “Evan, I didn’t like it when you took my block.”
With a small amount of coaching, Evan replies, “Sorry.”
The teacher says, “I know! How about if we build a tower together?”
The playing continues. Greg is learning to advocate for himself. Evan is learning to modify his behavior. Both boys are learning that we can all find a way to play together.
This article was originally published at The View Through Autism Glasses.