When working with children, the creative world of play and learning is endless. Mandi Mills, a recent graduate of Colorado State University, discovered this during her travels to Sydney, Australia where she completed her final fieldwork for her master’s degree in occupational therapy.
During her community pediatrics fieldwork experience Mills worked with children in the Sydney Playground Project. The SPP began in 2009 and is a research project led by Dr. Anita Bundy, the department head of CSU’s occupational therapy program, and clinical investigator of the research project abroad.
The SPP, a multidisciplinary research project, adheres to the principle that play should be an integral part of children’s daily activities. The project promotes the many benefits associated with outdoor, non-structured play. Research results demonstrated children became more imaginative, creative, and social in their play when adults stepped back and the children were given loose-part play material, including items such as car and bike tires, wooden planks, cardboard boxes, hay bales, and long tubes.
Throughout the 12-week fieldwork placement with the SPP, Mills worked on the playground of schools specifically designed for children diagnosed with autism, as well as schools that worked to integrate children diagnosed with autism into the mainstream classroom. Beyond the daily coding of play interactions and creation of intervention materials on the playground, Mills and the other University of Sydney occupational therapy students learned about the concept of human rights and reflected daily on disability and children’s rights. She was required to give a student in-service presentation at the end of her 12 weeks, advocating on behalf of children and their right to play.
In order to further explore this topic Mills traveled to Yogyakarta, Indonesia to gain an international perspective. She worked at an inclusive school for children with disabilities through University of Sydney connections. There, Mills saw how it truly is possible for children with disabilities to integrate, learn, and play with typically developing children. All children were given free time to run around and play without restrictions; the entire school was their playground. Mills also visited the Autism Resource Centre where she presented to 20 physical and occupational therapy practitioners about the importance of free play.
Mills then traveled to Lampang, Thailand to continue to explore occupational therapy abroad. Mills worked with the head of the occupational therapy department at Chiang Mai University, Dr. Nuntanee Sutiansukpong, on the Thai Elephant Therapy Project where children with autism were brought to elephant therapy conservation camps. Here, the children were taught basic activities of daily living, such as washing, feeding, and playing games with the elephants. The children also inherently learned social skills through the animal therapy and interacting with other children and volunteers. Children also worked on fine motor skills when participating in elephant crafts, as well as worked on relaxation with yoga and meditation breathing at the end of sessions.
Mills originally wanted to work in a pediatric hospital setting, but through her experiences in Australia, Indonesia, and Thailand, she has now decided to work in a pediatric outpatient setting in Colorado Springs. Her new company is unique in that it bills as outpatient services, but is mobile and children can be treated in their natural environments: homes, schools, parks, pools, or even playgrounds.
“The amazing thing about occupational therapy is that the profession is adaptable. Each child is unique and we accommodate to that uniqueness. We modify our interventions, our setting, and our viewpoints constantly. Children should have the right to play, and when we are able to mold to their lifestyles and cultural backgrounds, we share their world and help them succeed,” Mills said.
By Linda McDowell