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Play has big impact on neurodiverse tamariki

Play has big impact on neurodiverse tamariki

09 October 2023
two children playing with spare parts in a wooded structure

A group of Dunedin-based neurodiverse tamariki are now more comfortable engaging in play at school through honing their skills with simple everyday items like sticks, containers and ropes. 

It’s all part of a programme called Tauparapara/Play Dates with Mates run by reThink Children’s Therapy, which uses play-based interventions in its clinical psychology, occupational therapy, speech language therapy and social work. 

ReThink received Tū Manawa Active Aotearoa funding through Sport Otago for two occupational therapists to run ‘Play Dates with Mates’, weekly during term time after school. The programme kicked off last year. 

The organisation worked with three Dunedin schools to provide 20 neurodiverse tamariki the chance to develop their emotional regulation, social skills and confidence in a play setting alongside their peers. 

“We knew there was a group of young people who would benefit from the opportunity to engage in play, but I think we under-estimated the importance the weekly sessions would have in the lives of the tamariki,” says reThink managing director Anna Baker.

Tamariki playing with blocks and other spare toys


Feedback from whānau and progress in participants’ play skill development, including emotional and social skills, show just how valuable the programme has been. 

Initially the groups of tamariki played independently, not talking or engaging with each other, says Anna, but in the final sessions they collaborated. One group even put on a shadow show, each with their own role. 

“As tamariki developed their emotional regulation skills they were more interested in joining in with others,” says Anna. 

“One child initially threw resources around the room, unaware of how to engage in playing with them or the other children. In the final sessions they frequently imitated the play ideas of others in parallel and joint play experiences.” 

One mother talked of her child’s increased confidence. They had recently joined physical play outside the group in a way they would not have done previously. 

Another parent said her child no longer reacts to challenging situations as quickly, now taking time to think things through before responding. 

Tamariki were encouraged to engage in “loose parts play”, and were given a variety of everyday items such as containers, sticks, sheets, rope and spouting that don't have a set function in play.  

“A long stick could be a tent pole, or a sword, or a fishing rod, or the periscope on a ship while a sheet could be a tent, or a sail, or the waves in the ocean,” explains Anna.  

“It’s a model that was initially challenging for some children because it doesn’t provide any structure or rules to follow.” 

Instead it required therapists to model play ideas and use their skills to engage the children in play alongside them. Eventually the therapists withdrew and coached the children in emotional regulation and social skills as needed. 

“It’s all about removing barriers that reduce neurodiverse children engaging in play by meeting their needs for a small group setting, providing therapists to help skill development, responding to sensory needs and feelings of being overwhelmed, scaffolding play experiences as needed, and providing a chance for them to make friends in a suitable environment.” 

Sport Otago play lead Georgia Clarke says the programme has allowed tamariki a safe space where they feel comfortable to engage in play and be active in their own way. 

“This is why we do the work we do, so everyone can be active through play. Without it, these tamariki wouldn't participate in other after school activities or play, and would miss out on connections, social skills and fun.” 

The programme proved such a hit that reThink successfully applied for additional Tū Manawa funding to run Play Dates with Mates again this year. 

Tamariki playing with blocks and a bucket

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