Play and Learn

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They look like typical babies, bouncing on their moms’ knees while their hands are guided through the motions of “The wheels on the bus.” But life has been anything but typical for some of them.

Alexandra Wheeler, one, has undergone every conceivable medical test to explain why her joints are rigid, limiting her movement. She’s recovering from surgery to close a cleft palate, and there are concerns about her vision and hearing.

Lauren Hersh breathes through an oxygen tube that’s attached to a machine her mom carries over her shoulder. At the tender age of one, she’s already spent nine months in hospital and undergone six surgeries. She was born with some organs outside her body and has significant respiratory problems.

Alexandra and Lauren participate in an integrated babies program at Play and Learn – a community nursery run by Bloorview MacMillan Children’s Centre. And their mothers say one of the best parts is connecting with other parents who understand their journey.

“It’s nice to talk to mothers who are in the same boat and share the same fears,” says Alexandra’s mom Robbin. “Alexandra’s had lots of testing but her prognosis is still a mystery. Our fear of the unknown is huge.”

In addition to meeting other parents of children with special needs, Lauren’s mom Leslee says integration with typically developing children is a big plus of the program. “The fact that Lauren’s around other children and being stimulated by them is phenomenal,” Leslee says. “She’s watching them and absorbing it.”

Play and Learn offers “some normalcy” to parents of babies with special needs because it “takes them out of clinical settings and puts them into a social milieu with other babies and parents that’s fun,” says Janice Spitz, Play and Learn coordinator. The babies – from newborns to age two – meet one half day a week, in the bright, warm nursery located in a Toronto library building.

Play and Learn was Toronto’s first integrated nursery when it opened its doors 27 years ago, and the babies program is still one of the only integrated groups of its kind. “When Play and Learn started, many children with disabilities weren’t accepted into community programs,” Janice says.

As with all Play and Learn programs – which go up to the age of four – the babies group has a 50/50 split between children with and without disabilities. The program begins in a gym full of colourful, soft play equipment – including a castle, slide and blocks to climb on.

Children old enough to toddle about on their own run free in this safe environment, while moms huddle in small groups, chatting about everything from “typical baby stuff – like how to get their child to sleep better – to g-tubes and oxygen,” Janice says.

After participating in a music circle led by a creative arts specialist, the group moves to a classroom. Here, a specific craft is set up – involving materials such as edible paint and glue that staff make – and children move freely between play stations. For example, at one table, they scoop corn meal into a sand wheel and watch it turn, or delight in running their fingers through the fine substance. Children who can’t stand at the table are stripped to their diapers and allowed to sit on it. “We use sensory activities because children at that young age learn best through their sensory systems,” Janice says.

Therapy goals for babies with special needs are incorporated into the program “without children recognizing it, because it’s associated with play,” Janice says. Teachers make home visits to the families of children with special needs. With the support of program therapists – who include occupational therapists, speech- language pathologists and physiotherapists – they develop a home program of activities to promote a child’s development. They then set up related activities at the babies program. “For a child who needs to be working on the gross-motor skills of bending and scooping, we may put out a basket with balls, and get the kids picking up the balls and throwing them into another basket,” Janice says. “If a child needs to work on oral motor skills such as chewing, our snack will be extra chewy that week.”

The children without disabilities “are great role models because it’s easier to imitate a child who’s just a little beyond where you are, than an adult,” Janice says. It’s important to integrate children with disabilities because “otherwise the focus of programs tends to be on the special needs,” Janice says. “The philosophy of Play and Learn has always been that children with special needs are more similar than dissimilar to other children.”

That’s an approach that Lara Huntsman would like to nurture in her children. Her daughter Kira, three, has attended Play and Learn since she was a baby, while one-year-old Isaiah began the babies program recently. Neither have special needs. “I think my daughter has learned to see children as people first – to see their abilities, not their disabilities,” Lara says. “When children are small, and exposed to equipment and assistive devices, they’re so accepting. They learn that there are different ways to have fun, different ways to move, and different ways to eat. Everything is okay. They learn to value differences.” For more information, call Play and Learn, (416) 782-1105.