Structured & Child Led Activities

Categories: Basic Skills | Play

When you look at your teaching/therapy style how would you describe it to someone else? Do you tend to lean towards a very structured plan and systematic activities, or do you prefer to engage in more child led activities? Maybe a mix of both? I do not think there’s a wrong preference however, the scaffolding steps it takes to actively engage one in an activity might lean more towards one approach or be a complete mix.  In the end, we do what’s best for kiddos.  Additionally, we must remember that kids need change constantly so what works one day may need to be altered the next.  

To Structure or Not to Structure?

Ah that is the question.   As a previous special education classroom teacher (both main and co-teacher), I was trained very systematically and structured.  And my kiddos thrived from it.  They also thrived with variety and child led activities.  I also think it really depends on the setting as well. In a classroom you have complete control (well somedays more than other it seems) over the materials presented, the schedule, behavior plans etc.  At homes, that can be very different and truly not always even feasible.  A household cannot always run on a strict schedule and little kids under 3 are often not going to want to do the activity you brought or had in your mind.  My point in saying all of this is that you can still be structured and be flexible and then turn an activity into child led so that there is maximum engagement. 

How Can I be Both?

Infants and Toddler’s programs thrive on working with children in their natural environment with the items and toys the family already have.  It wouldn’t be helpful if I constantly brought things into the home and then removed them.  How would the parent be able to practice the same strategies?  This leads me towards a lot of child led play and practices.  At first, this was very intimidating because I have always had a very structured lesson plan and, in the home, it just does not always work like that. I found that the presentation of the materials is how you turn something into a structured activity or let it flow with child led.  And I truly love both.  Case and point with these pictures.  I brought a matching animal activity, a big and little animal sort, and an adapted Zoo animal book.  I also had it in mind to maybe follow up with some zoo animal figurines and some play doh.   Here’s what actually happened:

First, she seemed most interested in the matching animals’ activity game so that’s what we did!  In the classroom, I may have had more of a schedule and may have started with something different.  Next, as she matched them, I labeled the animal and made the sound.  Even though she did not imitate me each time, she had great joint attention and was still learning vocabulary.  We even pretended to make them run across the floor.  Also, in the classroom, I probably would’ve been doing this activity with several students at a group table.  This child does well working on the floor so we stuck with that…flexibility!

Next up, we sorted big and little animals using the core board to emphasize those words.  She loved this activity and even did it twice.  The core board supported the most abstract terms of big and little and she even made her fingers go closely together when trying to say the word little.  The next two following activities are where my plan shifted completely.     

My next plan was to read through some of the pages of the “Guess What’s in the Zoo” adapted book by Sarah.  I had a feeling this book would be a harder skill because it focuses more on features rather than just matching animal on a page.  This specific book also gives a field of 3 choices per page, so I already modified it and only included two.  My friend was way more interested in why all three boxes were not filled and did not like putting the animal card into the zoo.  While I pointed out the feature and we found the right animal, I could tell she was losing interest and quickly.  We ended up just turning the pages and looking at the animals and moving the pieces around.  And guess what? That’s ok and she still was hearing plenty of vocabulary.  She then got up from the floor and brought out her blocks so once again, my plan shifted and went towards more child led play.

For my last activity, in mind we would bring out the play doh and either dress animal figures with the play doh or pretend to build our own zoo.  When she brought out the blocks, I jumped at the opportunity, and we built a fence for our animals and had them “hide” behind blocks.  We still got to work on tons of core and fringe words, and it was successful.  I also want to point out that this was during a 45-minute session and some activities lasted longer than others.  For some other kiddos, I may have been able to do one of the matching animal pages and that would be it.  And that’s OK!  You can find the zoo file folders here and the zoo adapted books here.  Happy Playing!   

Gina Russell, B.S , M.Ed
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