When school began several weeks ago three third grade girls ran into my classroom during their recess in search of the teacher whose classroom this used to be. "Can we help? Do you need help?" They chorused loudly, enthusiastically. I told them I didn't need help with chores, but I did need help teaching my preschool children how to play, could they help with this? They can, they do. A gaggle of five girls has become anywhere between ten and thirty third graders knocking on the door "Can we play? "Can we use the clay?", "Can we paint?" And my favorite request, "is the art class open?"
My attempts at providing developmentally appropriate, open ended sensory, art and literacy experiences for my preschool children with Autism, has expanded to serve a need I wasn't anticipating, a creative experience for grade school children. They rush into the room, lining up at the easels to paint, to create structures out of duct tape and card board. "It's a kite", "I made a filter for my fish tank", "I made head phones because it's so loud." Art has become the focus, the foundation on which this classroom community is being built. "Can this be our art class everyday?" "Can I take this painting home to my mom?" "Can you get us more ribbon and cardboard boxes?" "See, I told you it was fun in this room", one girl remarked to her friend.
The social aspects of this reverse mainstreaming surprise and encourage me. If Alice, my oldest and perhaps most rigid student can practice her cutting skills with scissors and construction paper while sharing space and materials with an unpredictable, loud group of older children? Fantastic. Frequent "gift giving" and letter writing, small connections are being made. "It's okay if she doesn't smile when you give her the letter, the important thing is that you wrote it", I tell the children who are thinking hard about ways to interact with my students.
Vernon, age four asked an older boy to read aloud to him, and gave him a high five when the book was complete. Sally ran to the door and grabbed the hand of the girl who played playdough with her the day before. Frances who does not speak, ran into the center of the older kids who were jumping on the trampoline laughed, flapped his arms, and joined them. When Frances observed the older boys pretending to be Doctors? He sat down next to them, put on a stethoscope and imitated their play.
Occasionally in stressful moments the need to contain, or limit the "art class" recess time for the third grade comes to mind, but the thought is fleeting as I consider the value of free, creative, expressive play for eight- year olds. Having their own self made art class, and the opportunity to learn about other kinds of people is filling a hole in their academic curriculum, well balanced day. What these third graders are bringing to my students is of irreplaceable value: their ability to connect, interact and yes teach, my Autistic students how to play. It really is fun in this room. Pass the duct tape.