Children develop most of their basic skills and abilities during the first five years of life. They actively explore their environment, learn to hold objects, walk, speak and become increasingly independent. Often, this process occurs by itself. However, if difficulties or delays occur, various forms of therapy can help a child’s development with the use of specifically designed toys and games. Because Naef toys are often used in therapeutic settings, we are interested in how children develop through play, as well as how early childhood therapists work with their clients.
Interview with an early childhood educator for children with special needs, Nicole Lasagni
Nicole Lasagni has been working as an early childhood educator for children with special needs since 2003. She works at “zeka”, an institution that provides services for people with disabilities. In her work, Nicole Lasagni supports and assists preschool children, who are developmentally delayed or at risk with their general, but primarily their physical development. She also provides their parents with advice and guidance. Nicole Lasagni, 54, is married and the mother of two grown children. She lives in Zofingen (Aargau / Switzerland).
What are the difficulties facing the children you work with?
Parents or professionals involved at the early stages of development contact us when they realize that a child is significantly different in their development compared to their peers. In addition to gross motor skills, this early childhood development also includes basic fine-motor skills such as perception, fixation on an object, grabbing, hand-eye coordination and manipulation of objects. Very often we receive referrals from paediatricians or children’s hospitals, after the child has been diagnosed with developmental difficulties.
What is the goal of Special Needs Education?
The goal is always to encourage the child in his or her autonomy so that he or she can participate in life and be self-efficacious. To do this we need to determine the child’s present stage of development and define the closest goal, which we can work towards together.
Which Naef toys do you use for infants?
For infants, the teething toys are of central importance. After looking and focusing on an object, come the first attempts at grasping and oral exploration. Later, the child can transfer the object from one hand to the other and also release it. I especially like the Dolio. It is very easy for infants to grab. Its colorful balls, which move around without falling off, offer a special experience for children’s hands. It behaves reliably and predictably, but is stubborn enough to be stimulating, as the balls can’t be removed.
What is suitable for slightly older children?
A toy I like to use in therapy is the Ligno. Building blocks are generally important for development, but this game, with its contrasting shapes (round and square), the cubes and cylinders that can fit together and slide apart, present additional construction challenges and are therefore suitable for different age groups. The specially shaped Naef block is also an interesting component which is compatible with Ligno. Both block varieties have a pleasant feel: they are neither too smooth nor too rough and are pleasantly colorful. Another Naef product I use is the mosaic. I set down rows of blocks and have the children copy them, distinguishing colors and patterns. I also use the Schnurpfelpony to encourage children to recreate patterns.
What role does the material play?
Wood is wonderful to touch and especially valuable for children growing up in today’s plastic world. In general, the exploration of natural materials such as wood, stone, earth and sand are important in the early stages of childhood. Modeling clay or dough is also an interesting material for children.
What does a therapy session look like?
I usually go to the child’s home. The sequence lasts about 60 minutes and is structured. I prepare for each child based on the child’s present stage of development and which steps are pending. In my bag I have the corresponding materials, usually about four different things. I might also use toys from the family. For example, after a welcoming ritual, I give the child a box of building blocks that he can open and unpack. I let him play for a while, before turning his attention to a particular aspect, such as the color or shape of an object. I direct the child’s activity as best I can. In order to deepen the selected aspect, I often use picture books or let the child draw about the topic. For the promotion of language development, it is important to talk about what is happening. For example, when a construction suddenly becomes a dragon in a castle, I am glad because the use of the imagination further promotes language development.
At the conclusion of the therapy sequence, a brief exchange of information takes place with the parent present.
What exactly are the benefits of the toys you are using?
For infants, Naef toys are well suited for oral and visual exploration and especially for the development and promotion of dexterity and eye-hand coordination. Later, children learn to build. With the variety of Naef blocks everything is possible, from simple towers to complex three-dimensional structures. Children learn a lot about physical laws by exploring the objects. Using the blocks for filling and emptying vessels, or lining them up and stacking them, they make their first experiences with concrete quantities. This helps children to acquire basic competencies, for example, the foundations of math. In communicative exchanges with other children and adults about what they have built and experienced in turn, they expand their language skills. This happens all the more when the children are encouraged to use their imaginations.
How important is playing for child development?
“Play is the work of the child,” Maria Montessori once said. Through play, children learn for life and develop motor and cognitive skills. Children should be allowed to engage in self-directed, free play, and to explore the world around them. It is also very important for adults to play with children. They learn from each other. Adults can give input or assistance if necessary. Working together is especially valuable in the fostering of positive relationships.
What should parents consider when choosing toys?
Toys should be stimulating in terms of their material and diverse in their potential uses. Moreover, everyday objects are also perfect for playing. I’m skeptical of smart phones. In my opinion, they do not belong in children’s hands. Tapping and swiping, the movements that are required on the screen, are skills that the child has mastered almost from the beginning, so they are not learning any new skills. It may be that the fun factor is present, but normal learning processes for children don’t work that way.
How can parents foster their children’s development?
By spending time with their children, paying attention to them and communicating with them, for example, talking about what is happening right now, and also about feelings. It is also important for children to have contact with other children. Parents should often give their children opportunities for free play and provide natural materials for their children to touch, because grasping leads to understanding. The exploration and handling of materials stimulates learning processes. It is very important that parents focus on the process of play rather than the results. In no case, should parents ever expect perfection, because perfection often results in boredom or stress.
About “zeka” (Center for people with disabilities in Aarau)
In the canton of Aargau (Switzerland), zeka has been providing care and support for people with physical disabilities or developmental delays since 1966. Their goal is to maximize the development, independence and integration of their clients.
In two schools (Aarau and Baden), children with disabilities, ranging in age from kindergarten to secondary, attend lessons and therapy sessions. There are also outpatient services: infants and toddlers receive educational and therapeutic support, children and adolescents receive help with integration into regular kindergartens and mainstream schools, and adults with disabilities are supported in housing, employment, and education.