The Penguin Project is a play put on in Central Illinois by kids who have disabilities. The kids with disabilities all have peer mentors to help them memorize their actions and songs.
The Penguin Project is such a big deal for these kids and their parents. I could see the happiness in all their faces. I am grateful Dr. Andrew Morgan (the Medical Director for Easter Seals in Central Illinois) came up with this idea.
I took my 4-year-old son to the program. I had a hard time explaining to him what he was about to see. He took speech classes at Easter Seals when he was younger, but he really hasn't been exposed to kids who have obvious disabilities. So, I went on a search to find out the best way to explain the situation to a young child.
I talked to Katie Hogan, the Executive Director for the Heart of Illinois Special Recreation Society (HISRA). HISRA is a cooperative extension of Morton, Peoria, Chillicothe and Washington Park Districts. It coordinates all of the recreation programming for individuals with disabilities in these districts. Here's Katie's advice:
"I usually begin by explaining to kids that each of our bodies and brains works in different ways. Then (depending upon the age) I explain how someone with a disability may have a brain that works a bit differently (or body.) I get into some detail for individual disabilities. I always explain it is not contagious, but often compare a disability to the cold or the flu when discussing how children with a particular disability (such as CP or Autism) may have it in varying degrees."
Here are some tips I found on a message board:"The truth is what you tell them. I have a son who is 5 with Down Syndrome, he was getting off the bus as I heard a neighbor child say that he was getting off the stupid bus...I told the child its a special needs bus for special children, but they are just like my other children and like all other children, just a bit different, and maybe slower than other children.....and that's all I told them.....you mostly want them to understand your child not be scared of them or to feel sorry for them, just treat them as any other child.....a lot has to do with that they don't understand...and also part could be how they hear others talk about other people could be an influence.....so just tell them the truth....they will understand." Anonymous Mom
"Explain things to children in words and contexts that they understand, and always model the appropriate forms of language and social cues. Also, I always allow them to ask any questions, so I might add "So do you have any more questions?"Sometimes, children need more than one concrete example or explanation in order for them to grasp something novel the first time.We cannot expect them to grasp and change their mentality and perceptions right away. So it takes time, patience, and practice. In short, children model what they see, hear, touch, experience,etc., and so it is up to the adults to set the standards or goals early on. "Milflores(Advisor/Educator)
I just spoke with Dr. Morgan from the Penguin Project. He says to wait until the child who is typically developing to notice differences when kids are young. He said,"I'm not for sure you need any explanation. These children are performers. Young kids don't necessarily identify these kids as being handicapped."
I completely agree. My 4-year-old definitely didn't notice the kids had disabilities. He just clapped and danced in his chair and kept asking when they were going to sing again! He loved it!
I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic. What is the best way to explain kids with disabilities to a child who is typically developing? If you are involved with the Penguin Project, let me know why it's important to you and what kind of an impact it has on your life.