At HomeSphero Staff
A boy sits at his desk with a frustrated look on his face as he rests his head on his hands.

When COVID-19 started to spread throughout the country in 2020, educators and parents were forced to adapt to our changing society rapidly. 

As school districts closed their doors to curb the spread of the virus, many students were sent home and dropped into virtual learning environments for the first time — which meant that teachers had to scramble to effectively tailor their curriculums for online learning. 

While educators hoped their newly developed digital classrooms would help all their students learn during the pandemic, there was one group of children that were left by the wayside more than any other: students with special needs. 

For the majority of the school year, students with special needs were stuck in isolated environments at home, meaning they were unable to receive the social-emotional, educational, and therapeutic experiences they normally receive in their federally-mandated Individualized Education Programs (IEP).

Although there is finally a light at the end of the tunnel with the FDA’s approval of COVID-19 vaccinations, the rollout of immunizations to people across the country will be slow, and many school districts have already announced they are fully integrating remote learning for the beginning of the 2021 school year.

A harsh reality for both educators and parents with special needs students, the continuation of remote learning leaves them with tough questions and even tougher answers. Will the lack of in-person IEP and social-emotional isolation cause regression? Will special needs students be able to retain all the progress they made with nearly two years away from in-person specialized schooling?

At Sphero, we understand how difficult it’s been to keep special needs students on track during a global pandemic, which is why we are here to talk about guided play-based learning. Guided play-based learning involves a blend of student-initiated and educator-supported learning — both of which build upon a child’s innate desire to play. This type of learning gives students with special needs an alternative to traditional teaching methods in remote learning environments. 

Below, two of our Sphero Heroes — including Sean Arnold (STEM Coach and Special Education Teacher in New York) and Karyn Lisowski (Special Education Teacher by day and coding teacher by night in Illinois) — detail how educators and parents can use play-based learning in at-home classrooms to help special needs students succeed.

Play-Based Learning: An Alternative Special Needs Education Method

Students with special needs tend to shy away from traditional learning methods, especially in remote learning environments. Due to the rigid structure and isolation these learning methods impose, students with intellectual and developmental disabilities have a difficult time absorbing, retaining, and benefiting from a standard curriculum. 

Play-based learning, however, creates a structure where learning (even in a remote environment) is more natural for students with disabilities. “Play allows all students, no matter their needs, to learn,” explains Karyn Lisowski. “Students discover skills at their own pace and they choose which activities interest them.”

“Hard Fun”: The Most Effective Learning Style

Advocated by educational pioneers and innovative learning theorists like Seymour Papert, play-based learning (termed ‘playful learning’ by Papert), posits that the best and most effective teaching method is hard fun learning. Papert, while working with one of his students in the mid-1980s, was first introduced to this concept:

Once I was alerted to the concept of ‘hard fun,’ I began listening for it and heard it over and over. It is expressed in many different ways, all of which boil down to the conclusion that everyone likes hard challenging things to do, and complex artifacts to play with. But they have to be the ‘right’ things, matched to the individual’s style and personality, background and ethnicity, and to the culture of the times,” said Papert.

The concept of “hard fun” continued to play a significant role throughout Papert’s career and paved the way for the play-based learning methods we know today.

The Power of Play-Based Learning and Motivation

Motivation is a key element to educating students with special needs, yet so many educators — especially those teaching students with autism — follow a behaviorist teaching model that is based on extrinsic or external rewards, such as good grades, stickers, or treats. This model is only effective for productivity in the short term, not to mention it can be extremely difficult to implement in a remote learning environment. 

On the contrary, play-based learning allows students to move towards intrinsic motivation, which includes finding purpose and enjoyment in their work, establishing social connections, and improving long-term productivity and creativity. “I’ve always thought that the two greatest strengths of playful learning, especially for students with disabilities, is that it moves towards intrinsic motivation and it redefines failure,” writes Sean Arnold. 

When implemented correctly, playful learning motivates students to push past struggles and failures, which allows them to turn “game over” moments into “play again” moments.

Play-Based Learning Fosters Independence With the Right Tools

While remote learning has made it difficult to access in-person support and specialized learning aids in the classroom, there are many easily accessible digital tools — such as smart devices with text-to-speech software or virtual assistants — that can help your special needs students foster independence. “I have non-verbal students using iPads to talk for them,” Arnold explains to Sphero. “Blind students can have things read and images described. They can tell their device to complete the tasks they need. And in all of this, they increase their independence.”

Once students with special needs acquire the at-home tools they need, play-based learning activities can be introduced. During these “hard fun” challenges, students will be able to utilize their digital tools to complete playful tasks at their own pace, which allows them to showcase their creativity and subject matter retention just like their peers. 

Many educators actually turn to Sphero’s play-based learning toolsets to promote exploratory learning in both in-person and remote learning environments. “Sphero allows a safe environment where a child, of any ability, can test a solution, fail, and try again until the Sphero works,” writes Lisowski. 

Play-Based Learning Promotes Social Interactions

For students with special needs, social-emotional learning is one of the most important aspects of their education. Unfortunately, many of today’s remote learning environments are leaving these students feeling anxious and alone, as standard online coursework typically focuses on more traditional methods of teaching like independent thinking and self-direction.  

While fostering independence is an important part of development, many special needs students are still building their social and conversational skills — and the lack of connection between their peers and teachers during the pandemic could be causing them to regress. 

Fortunately, with play-based learning implemented into a special needs student’s remote curriculum, educators and parents will be able to create “hard fun” scenarios that supplement group discussions, peer-to-peer collaboration, and teacher-student connection via applications like Zoom, Google Hangouts, or FaceTime. 

The Importance of Breakout Groups

Both Arnold and Lisowski emphasize that it’s important to remember that these play-based activities should be free and exploratory for special needs students. If these students feel social pressure during an all-class video chat or fear their teacher will call on them in front of their peers, they could digress from the lesson and miss out on important learning opportunities. To avoid this, breakout groups on applications like Zoom provide a more relaxed, socially inclusive environment and access to the curriculum at an individualized pace.

Facilitate Special Needs Education With Help From Sphero

For both educators and parents with special needs students, this school year has been more challenging than any other. From adapting to remote learning environments for the first time to coping with the setbacks associated with missing IEP programs and specialized in-class tools, it has been a hard road to navigate. 

During these unusual times, Sphero hopes to be a beacon of support that you and your special needs students can count on. With a wide selection of play-based learning tools, like Sphero robots and littleBits kits, and other resources, your students will be able to take on creative, educational challenges that are personally suited to their capabilities while learning from home.

To discover more information on how to implement play-based learning into your remote learning environment, download our whitepaper today.

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