June 3, 2009

Disclaimer: Please excuse the half-formed randomness in this post

Imaginary play shares a lot of features with improvisational theater. It is an emerging narrative that no one participant controls, turns are dynamic and responsive from moment-to-moment, and, most frustrating to programming AAC, the meaning of any action may change as the result of future actions!


Children are playing in dressup area:

Child 1: takes coat from coat rack and puts it on.

Child 2: Are you going to work? Have a nice day.

Same scene, different narrative:

Children are playing in dressup area:

Child 1: takes coat from coat rack and puts it on.

Child 2: That’s on sale today. Eleventeen percent off.

One child initiates an action and the second child defines the meaning of that action. This is why “scripts” in an AAC system can’t work. A child needs to be able to keep up with an uncertain, unfolding narrative. If the first child had an AAC system, if that system was set for “playing house,” it would be useless in crafting a response to Child 2 in the second example.

Improv theater actors use certain mechanisms to scaffold their narrative. Most start the scene with some theme or core idea and build from there. Some use a highly rigid structure (like imitating a TV sitcom or a film-noir movie). (As an aside note, I would love to do a children’s theater improv based on Scooby-Doo because of its highly rigid narrative structure).

Similarly, children use popular fiction to scaffold their narratives. They play Power Rangers, or Ben10, or Sailor Moon etc. They don’t need to exactly re-eneact the plots (and usually don’t), but the basic elements from the stories structure the improv. Younger children often use familiar structures from everyday life as a scaffold, such as House, School, Going to the Doctor, etc.

But that scaffolding isn’t quite enough. Kids need to be able to negotiate the play frame with metaplay language. Here’s a scene:

Kids are climbing into a refrigerator carton.

Child 1: Pretend this is our house.

Child 2: No. It’s a spaceship.

Child 1: Pretend we live in a spaceship, okay?

Child 2: I’m gonna go outside and look for aliens.

When kids are playing, as much as half (often more with younger kids) of their spoken utterances are out-of-character comments about the play frame. Next time you are looking at an AAC system, try to find utterances that allow this kind of talk. It isn’t there. And our in-frame play pages may have dinosaurs, but what happens to that page when the kids determine that they are dinosaurs in space with super-powers?

Question: how to structure AAC so that metaplay talk about the play frame, and in-character talk can coexist. And the in-character talk can be flexible enough to allow for changes to the scenario.

2 Responses to “Metaplay”

  1. Terri Says:

    Damnit, you’re right. I joke about how our verbal child does not actually play, but talks about playing for fun – it’s all about planning… but have made the mistaken assumption that somehow our younger AAC user would be executing play 100% of the time she wished to communicate. We have left her with nothing but sand talk at the sand table, but sand can be snow or water or quicksand or fallout or any number of things.

    Duh. Now what?!

  2. G.Fraggle Says:

    I wish I had an answer for you, Terri. This is completely new to the AAC field (in fact, I think I’m the first person to try research on it at all). I think the first step is recognizing the problem.

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