2000 Conference Proceedings

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Computers as tools for play and communication for children with disabilities

Jane Brodin,
Stockholm Institute of Education, Disability & Handicap Research

Introduction The first computer play centres, ’Datatek’, for children with disabilities were started in 1992 as a pilot activity. The main aim was to give children and adolescents with all kind of disabilities and on the level before reading and writing, opportunities to play and to get access to computers (Göthberg, 1995).

Computer play centres can be compared with toy libraries/lekotek, as the philosophy is similar. Common to all toy libraries is the stress on play as a means for child development, and the challenge of making play available and beneficial to parents and children. The basic philosophy is that a toy library constitutes a complement to existing services in offering a more comprehensive support for families and children with disabilities. Most toy libraries focus on pre-school children (up to seven years of age) and the use of play and toys are adapted to each child’s special needs (Brodin, 1996; Lindstrand, 1999).

Many parents of children with severe disabilities complain that they experience difficulties in activating their child and state that their child does not play independently and that he/she is passive (Brodin, 1991). For this reason, parent’s require advice and supervision on play and how to activate a child with severe multi-disabilities. Parents have often high expectations on computers as tools for play, probably based on applications used in other fields of the information society. No referral from a medical doctor is needed for a visit to the computer play centre, just a need for play support identified by the parents (Jonson, 1998; Sirén, 1999). The computer play centres are non-demanding, amusing, service functions offered to families with children and adolescents with disabilities at a low fee.

Aim and method

The aim of this paper is to report some results from the project "Computer play centres - a way to support play and communication in children with disabilities?". Data were collected, with questionnaires, observations and interviews with parents and staff. The interviews were transcribed and together with the data from the observations they were compiled and reported as case studies (Jonson, 1998).

Results

The number of children who visited the centres were 1122, out of which 734 were boys and 388 girls. Most children were between seven and fifteen years of age and the average age of the starters were six to seven years. The interest in computer play seems to be more obvious for boys than for girls. It is reasonable to believe that this is partly a result of parents’ and teachers’ attitudes to technology, partly a result of childrens own play preferences. Most children participated in a number of sessions consisting of at least six to ten visits, sometimes more. Many children who visited the computer play centres have multi-disabilities but the main group of children who visited the computer play centres were children with slight or mild impairments. Children with mental retardation constituted the main group in all categories except for severe motor disabilities.

The computer play centres have also received many study visits (5178 visitors) and the main groups were teachers and parents, who wanted to be familiar with the activity and find out if this kind of activity could be a complement to other kinds of educational support for a child in need of special support.

The project is divided into two parts; an evaluation of the Datatek activities from the start and a research project on gender and ICT. Although the research project did just start in September 1999, some data will be reported at the conference.

Discussion

The purpose of this paper was to give an idea of the very first computer play centres ’Datateks’ in Sweden, and to give a brief view of computers as tools for play and communication for children with disabilities. More boys than girls visit the computer play centres, which can also be seen in other activities where technology is involved. It is reasonable to believe that boys and men in general are more interested in technical solutions than girls and women, but so far we do not know.

The satisfaction of the parents involved can also be a result of the fact that they had chosen the activity themselves, and made all arrangements without having a referral from a doctor. Some of the parents compare computer play with habilitation activities.

The results of the interviews show that many children who have not been able to play before, start to play with the computer. More children succeed than the parents expect, Many parents say that they do not have any expectations on computer play but just want to find out if it may help their child in any way. Computers are ’friendly’, i.e. that the child can repeat the same programme time after time because a computer never gets tired. A computer is often of more interest for a child than other play tools. Some parents also mention that it is play - but also work and regard childrens’ play as work for development. The objections to using computers when playing might be that it is a solitar play where the child sit alone in front of the computer, but for children with disabilities this is not true as many of the parents sit down with the child and interact (Sirén, 1999). They have a social interaction directed towards the same goal and the play activity give them may occasions to interact and build up a mutual understanding and exchange.

The study also focuses on parents expectations on computer play and how computer play affects the development of play and communication in children with severe disabilities.

Acknowledgement

This project is supported by The Swedish National Inheritance Fund. and the Swedish Communication and Transport Research Board.

References

Brodin, J. (1991) Att tolka barns signaler. Gravt utvecklingsstörda flerhandikappade barns lek och kommunikation. [To interpret childrens’ signals. Play and communication in children with profound mental retardation and multiple disabilities. Stockholm University: Department of Education.

Brodin, J. (1996, September) El juego en los ninos con deficiencias mentales graves. [Play in children with profound mental retardation] Salta, Argentina.

Göthberg, B. (1995) Slutrapport från Datatekprojektet [Final report from the Datatek-project]. Vällingby: The Swedish Handicap Institute.

Jonson, U. (1998) Datatek - vad är det? [Computer play centre - what is that? ]Stenhamra: WRP International.

Lindstrand, P. (1999) Datatek. En studie om föräldrars erfarenheter av och förväntningar på datatekverksamhet [Computer play centres. A study on parents' experiences and expectations on computer play]. Stenhamra: WRP International.

[Sirén, N. (1999) Datatek - en beskrivning av verksamheten ur personalperspektiv [Computer play centres. A study on the activity from staff perspective]. Stenhamra: WRP International.


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