Learning and Belonging Through Play: Kai’s Story
Before coming to The Infants’ Home, 5-year-old Kai* had been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) Level 2/3, meaning that he needed substantial support in many aspects of his life, including his social communication and interactions, coping with change and regulating his emotions. Although he was eligible to start primary school in 2022, Kai was given an enrolment exemption due to his additional needs. Kai’s family and The Infants’ Home team were committed to using the extra year before school to help him to develop to his full potential, build his confidence as and be ready as he could be for this next step.
Enrolled in our Johnson House preschool program, Kai initially struggled with regulating his emotions. The Educators and Allied Health professionals working with him often found that a simple direction such as “come and sit down for lunch” could trigger a very big and seemingly disproportionate emotional response from Kai. However, the team knew that these responses were sparked by the challenges that Kai was facing due to his ASD, such as high-level anxiety, frustration and the sensory overload that children with ASD can sometimes experience, especially in a busy environment such as a preschool program. Kai was also socially disconnected, and he had very narrow and specific play interests, making it hard for him to engage fully in the daily program.
Our Senior Occupational Therapist Justine thought that Kai might benefit from participating in an eight-week integrated early intervention small group program called ‘Radical Robots’. Through this program Kai could participate in play-based learning with a small group of peers, which focussed on developing the children’s understanding of simple sequencing, algorithm and looping concepts. The group culminated in the children programming floor robots called ‘Bee Bots’ (which look like bees) to move forwards, backwards and turn 90 degrees to navigate mazes devised by the children.
Kai settled into the group immediately, and he was very willing to participate each week. Being in a group of only eight peers was less overwhelming for Kai than the larger preschool room group, and the logical and repetitive nature of the play-based experiences underpinning the program suited his thinking and learning style. Most importantly, being part of this smaller group helped Kai to experience a genuine sense of belonging and to feel that he was a capable and equal member of the group—he and his peers were developing entirely new skills and knowledge, meaning that everyone was beginning from a level playing field.
Kai participated enthusiastically in this program, engaging with peers and sharing the group’s excitement and joy when the Bee Bots were finally introduced, and the children could apply their new-found understanding of sequences, loops and algorithms to get the Bee Bots to navigate the mazes and pathways they set up.
The profound sense of belonging and achievement that Kai experienced through his participation in the ‘Radical Robots’ integrated group helped him to gain confidence, engage more with his peers and expand his play skills and interests. This was just one of several early intervention integrated small groups programs that Kai was a part of in 2022, and all of these helped ensure he could develop, practice and refine the skills he needed for a successful transition to school in 2023.
*Name changed for privacy