When senior Laura Johnson registered for classes for her last undergraduate semester
at the University of Mary Washington, she added one that wasn’t required—the Play Lab, an education course that gives students hands-on experience working with disabled students.
Johnson, a historic preservation and elementary education major with a focus in museum studies, thought the class would be beneficial to her as a teacher.
“You can’t control who comes into your classroom,” she said. “As a teacher, you’re responsible for giving every student the best education that you can, so I thought it was part of my responsibility as a teacher.”
The Play Lab, in its third semester at UMW, is a parent resource and clinic for children with developmental delays, such as autism and intellectual disabilities. Bolstered through community donations and grant awards, the course has been cited as a model program by Virginia Commonwealth’s Center for Autism Excellence.
UMW students spend seven weeks in the classroom learning strategies to effectively handle children with disabilities, and then incorporate those techniques in five-week sessions in the Play Lab with the children.
Johnson was among 12 UMW students who worked with 13 children. She was one of two undergraduates in a class of mostly graduate students and teachers who wanted to learn more about working with students with disabilities.
But the range of classroom dynamics wasn’t an obstacle for Johnson.
“It was really kind of daunting at first, but we all came together to work as a team,” Johnson said. “It just makes me excited to collaborate in the future with other teachers.”
“It really sets the kids up to want to communicate with each other, so they’re feeling comfortable, their bodies are feeling comfortable, and so that they are primed to communicate on their own,” said Nicole Myers, associate professor of education and coordinator of the program.
Parents appreciate being able to connect with another parent who has a child with special needs and receiving additional resources to what the school system provides, Myers said.
Students compile data collected throughout the semester and provide parents with a comprehensive resource packet, detailing strategies that worked well for their child in certain situations. The information later can be used to help write the child’s Individualized Education Plan, or IEP.
But the Play Lab isn’t just a resource for parents or a learning tool for students—it’s a place for the children to have fun.
“I think what the kids like is the social component,” said Myers. “They’re learning, but it’s all play to them.”
Heather DeCou, a licensed counselor who joins Myers in staffing the Play Lab, agrees that the social component is one of the most important, for the children as well as their parents.
Said DeCou: “I think many of the parents are looking for an opportunity for their kids to make friends.”