Public Release: 

Parents Can Teach Best By Following Child's Lead During Play Time

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - Playing with a baby shouldn't require much thought, and yet parents' observations and responses during play times with their child can aid or hinder that child's development, a U. of I. professor of special education says.

Jeanette McCollum has been developing a model for supporting parent-child interaction based on that knowledge, and she has been teaching about it for 10 years, through training in which students act as facilitators of small parent-child play groups. Known as PIWI (Parents Interacting With Infants), the parent-child play groups can bring benefits to any child under age 3, but its greatest value can be for children with developmental delays or disabilities.

With two recent grants from the U.S. Department of Education, McCollum is working to make PIWI ­ now only a training model geared toward students in early childhood special education and other majors -- into a service model that can be used in local communities. By developing a training curriculum and materials, she hopes to make PIWI (pronounced peewee) available to early childhood intervention programs that treat children with developmental delays or disabilities.

"Children under age 3 are really different from older kids -- they learn in very different ways," McCollum said. "They're developmentally changing constantly, and so whatever intervention you do has to constantly change to match where they are." In other words, the child is in charge and sets the developmental and educational agenda, she said. Parents or adults need to adjust accordingly.

"The key to it is seeing through the baby's eyes, so it's not the adult imposing their agenda on the baby," McCollum said. "The parents may have an agenda, but their job is to interpret where the baby is and what the baby is thinking about, what the baby's intentions are, and then, if they want to teach something, to put that into the context of where the baby is."

Many parents of young children worry about their child's progress in various areas, relative both to other children and what is considered normal, not appreciating how differently children develop during those years, McCollum said. Especially when parents have children with identified delays or disabilities, "a lot of times they focus on what's wrong, instead of what's right, so they have a hard time seeing what's right," she said. In some cases, with certain disabilities, the problem is made worse because the child moves, behaves or shows emotion in a way that may be more difficult to interpret.

Parents can worry so much about their child catching up in one area that they will miss the signs of development elsewhere, and therefore miss the chance to encourage and promote that development, McCollum said. They and their child also can miss out on much of the simple fun of play.

McCollum plans to have at least two community test sites for PIWI set up by this summer, with more to be added over the next several years. Since parenting values vary across cultures, she noted, test sites will be set up in diverse communities, including those with mostly minority and rural populations.

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