Model high affect
A key strategy for adults supporting play and interaction is to model high affect (e.g., feelings, emotion, as shown in facial expression) and playfulness. This helps entice children toward a common activity and/or each other. Given high interest activities and a supportive environment that is in tune with each child’s individual differences, the adult’s affect/playfulness can help create a climate to encourage communication and back and forth interaction. In addition the adult should use heightened affect/emotional expression to reflect differing emotional contexts in the ongoing play such as a look of surprise when a child uncovers a bright red caboose in a treasure hunt game, a look of sadness when a character in a story has lost his beloved pet, or a look of concern when two children .
Observe for interests to help link children together
Observe for children’s common interests in play and activities and follow their leads to link them together in ways that have the potential to support back and forth interaction. Examples:
- Two children are moving/dancing independently to recorded music—the adult suggests they dance in unison (“Look how gracefully you and Marie are dancing! Shall we dance together?”).
- An adult suggests to two children who are engaged in parallel play with pieces from a miniature playground that they take turns having their toy figures go down the toy sliding board. Further suggestions might include one toy figure pushing the other on the toy swing.
- A child observing and appearing interested in the play of another child can be assisted to “break the ice” by suggesting a complementary activity such as sitting at the table and “eating” the pretend “eggs” being prepared by his peer.
- As suggested in Part 1 observe carefully for children’s interests (ask parents too) and offer opportunities to pursue these interests whether it’s spinning objects, space travel, Thomas the Train, or taking apart small appliances. Look for signs of interest by other children and opportunities for social exchange.
Focus on nonverbal signaling
In addition to observing for mutual interests, supporting children’s use and understanding nonverbal communication signals (e.g., sounds, gestures, facial expression) is critical for the development of functional communication skills and social and emotional capacities. These signals may indicate interest in another child or the child’s activity, a need for help, a desire to participate, wanting to take a turn, continue a shared activity, or get the attention of another child.
- A child standing across from another child playing with a water pump at a water table shows interest in the other child’s activity. The adult alerts the child playing with the pump to the peer’s interest (“Look Janny, Sammy really likes what you’re doing!”) and makes a suggestion to either child to support interaction between the two (“Janny, Can you pump water into Sammy’s pail? Here Sammy, put your pail under the pump. Janny will pump water in it.”).
- Children have been building and knocking down tall towers of cardboard blocks. Jay, who has observed this play, starts to build his own tower and keeps looking over with apparent interest at the spectacle of the blocks falling over but hasn’t joined in. The adult might say in a silly, exaggerated, slightly provocative tone to another child “Oh no! Don’t knock Jay’s tower down! Don’t you dare knock it down!” The adult thus interprets Jay’s nonverbal cues of interest and alerts other children in a playful way of his desire to join in.
- Similarly alerting children to each other’s cues of needing help with something like a challenging puzzle or using a new app on an I-Pad is a great opportunity for supporting back and forth communication and emotional signaling.
Use “problems” as opportunities
Problems or disputes that occur among children should be viewed as golden opportunities for children to use negotiation or problem solving to resolve issues. Adults can guide children through steps for solving problems (e.g., cool down, ID the problem, brainstorm solutions, try out the solution, follow-up). Adults can also experiment with purposely creating “problems” for children to solve that require them to problem solve and work together to overcome the problem. The “problems” that are set up generally involve high interest activities or materials. For example, the adult tells children that painting (a very popular activity) will be available and as he goes to set up the painting activity “discovers” that there is no more red or blue paint in the room. There is paint (which is in gallon containers) in another room. This problem is posed to three of the children who are most interested in painting. They brainstorm various solutions eventually settling on using a small wagon to transport the paint. The heaviness of the containers means they also have to work together to lift it onto the wagon and lift it out when they return. “Problems” can include desirable materials or equipment placed on high shelves or the door to an outside play area blocked by large and heavy blocks such as hollow wooden blocks.
Focus on natural spontaneous interactions not mechanical or prompted behaviors
Examples of mechanical or prompted behaviors include prompting children to greet others or make eye contact. Interactive behavior taught in a rote or mechanical way tends to be disconnected from the emotions and affective experience so critical to genuine and enriching reciprocal interactions and relationships with peers and others.