University of Edinburgh

Early Years Focus in Deaf Education

Presented on Friday 9 November, 2012

Understanding parent-child interaction in play with deaf children

Rachel O'Neill Lecturer in Deaf Education University of Edinburgh


  • Child-led play: Examples from DVD
  • Development of creative play in deaf and hearing children
  • Taking these approaches into Early Years settings

Notes: In this section of the day I will use the Play DVD to raise some issues about how parents interact with their deaf children. I will focus on some examples of child-led play on the DVD and what parents can do to support it. Then I will discuss in a bit more detail what creative play looks like in the pre-school years, and how children who are deaf may experience it quite differently from hearing children.

I am also going to use some examples from parents playing with hearing children to illustrate the issues which creative play raises. I think it's important to keep the experience of hearing children in mind, because their creative play shows the potential for developing thinking skills, empathy skills, and metalinguistic skills. These are the foundation for later thinking and learning in school. If deaf children are not developing these play habits and approaches, it could have serious consequences to their engagement with learning more formally later.

As I discuss these issues I will be referring to a number of ways in which play development can be described or studied, and the ideas which I think underlie them. I will refer to a number of different studies and research into both hearing and deaf children. I'm hoping that this will encourage you to draw on these thinkers yourself to inform your work in early years settings with deaf children and their parents.

The references in brackets are time in minutes on the SSC DVD 'Positive Play for Everyday'. Clips are now available on the SSC Website or the DVD can still be ordered free from the SSC.

Child-led play

Jessica and her mum (54;51) (55;11)

Early Support Monitoring Protocol (2006) has profiles for:

  • communication development
  • attending, listening and vocalisation
  • social-emotional development
  • other developmental milestones
  • development of play

Notes: This clip is of a deafblind girl aged three who has just had her bilateral CIs switched on. Her families have Tamil as their first language. They have dedicated themselves to play with Jessica. She is their only child. Notice in this clip how the mum responds to what Jessica wants to do, and extends it. From Jessica's smile we can guess this is a familiar game. We may think that Jessica can't make many choices, but her mother is responding very much in a physical way to her interests. We can see Jessica really listening in these games. The moments we are watching out for are very short. Look at: 55:11

If we use the Early Support Monitoring Protocol we might say that Jessica's play skills are at B3 level: she can grasp, bring objects to her mouth, understand the basics of turn-taking and manipulate objects. Her play is much less complex than for most three year olds probably because her family took a while to accept she was deafblind, and she has only just had her CI switched on. However, she is making very rapid progress.

The Monitoring Protocol has sections on communication development, attending, listening and vocalisation, social-emotional development, other developmental milestones and the development of play. In your pack you can see some sample pages from the MP. The web address for downloading the MP is on the reference list at the end. Each profile has 11 levels, called B levels, and roughly graded according to typical language development. That is typical spoken language development in a hearing child and typical British Sign Language development in a deaf child with a deaf family. Of course many children will be delayed for one reason or another. The profiles often interact and quite often seem rather repetitious. The theory behind the profiles is quite Piagetian, that is they are presented in a way to suggest that progress up the B levels will be a developmental one. These profiles do not focus on what the caregiver is doing. So we can see them as rather constructivist in their approach. They suggest that progress will happen automatically so long as the child is in a suitable loving environment with interesting play materials.

Llayton and his mum (47.58) (51.04)

Level 2 Materials (DFES, 2006) pages 44-45 - see pack. Unlike the Monitoring Protocol, these materials focus on what the parent/care-giver can do to build communication skills.

Notes: Now I'd like to move on to look at another parent and child interaction on the Play DVD, Llayton and his mother. Llayton is 2;2 in this film, and he had an implant at 13 months. His mother is also a nursery assistant, and a single parent.

She was quite an anxious mother, and the visiting teacher of deaf children suggested she might like to go on the Hanen course. This course, originating in Canada, introduces parents to the acronym OWL: observe, wait and listen. The book and DVD, 'It Takes Two to Talk', is available in the SSC Resource Centre. It has many useful activities and approaches for parents of children who have language delay.

In this first clip, notice how the mum gives the choice to Llayton about what activity to do. Also, once she starts the book-reading, she leaves a really good gap till Llayton responds. Llayton doesn't really respond with anything recognisably like 'peekaboo' but it is a response, nonetheless, at the right time and place.

Secondly, in this clip, you can see what is actually quite a parent-controlled listening game. And then what happens?

Invite comments. The mum changes tack and goes with the flow. Llayton doesn't want to keep doing the listening game, he wants to play cars and his mum goes with that. Both these features: choice and letting the child lead, are often part of training for childcare workers. They could also be part of your discussions with parents, to try to encourage more child-led play. Above all, play between parent and child must be motivating. If language is going to develop it has to be in motivating contexts.

Now, before I mentioned that the MP itself doesn't really have a role for the parent or caregiver, but there is another set of materials in the Early Support pack, the Level 2 materials. These are to be used at various points to check progress, and are meant to be referred to if there is a delay to expected progress. And here we see the role of the carer or parent. There is a sample two pages (pp 44-45) in your pack which you can look at. This is again based on a more Vygotskian approach to language development: that the social and cultural relationship between an adult and child is what makes the difference to moving language development on in the Zone of Proximal Development.

Activity. Have a look at these Level 2 pages with your neighbour. Can you see any features of the mum's way of interacting which are mentioned here? Can you discuss ways you as a teacher or psychologist could develop these ideas to make them more user-friendly for parents?

Feedback Discuss possibilities, eg fridge cards as reminders, possibly a series of leaflets or a booklet or a course. Advantage of meeting other parents. Working with both Deaf and hearing caregivers. Introducing the same ideas for nursery staff. Remind them also of the work of the Aberdeen-based Early Years SSC group in that the Fridge cards can be customised to a family or a child.

Christina and her dad (35.37) (36.22) (36.4)

Monitoring Protocol excerpts - see pack B9 & B10 Play

Brown et al (2001) p.22 - see pack. Decontextualisation, Decentration, Sequencing, Planning

Notes: Let's now look at Christina playing with her family. Christina is profoundly deaf, has a cochlear implant, and in this video is 3 years old. She was implanted at 2. Her family live in Fife. Christina has two older hearing sisters. Her dad is a childcare worker, and I think his understanding of children's language and play development really comes out in these clips. The family use both speech and sign with Christina.

In the first section you can see that the dad is modelling creative play with the doll and bottle. Christina joins in. She doesn't seem to have any words, but she does start a sequence with the doll which she keeps going with several activities: putting the doll in the pram, adjusting her handbag and taking the doll for a walk in the pram. The dad is using some phrases and some gestures or signs.

In the next clip we can see Christina and her sisters enjoying a game of their own devising: jumping over their dad's legs and running round in a circle. We can hear Christina using her voice here. This is very important social play, and not adult led, although the dad's presence is important.

The last clip Christina takes a while to realise that her dad has suggested a change of activity. He uses a sign to clarify.

Now if we want to see how Christina is getting on, we can look at the descriptive detail of the MP. And at the play section. In your pack you have a photocopy of the B9 and B10 pages of the Play profile.

Activity: Have a talk to your neighbour for a few minutes to see how many of these features you think Christina has. Also, given that Christina doesn't seem to be using any words in these clips, which play actions are we less likely to see?

Feedback discussion: focus on the difference between B9 and B10. That you need a fluent language to demonstrate many of the B10 play skills, that is, that language development and play development are very closely linked. This has been known for a long time. Bernstein noticed in the 70s for example that very disadvantaged children used much more complex language when they were engaged in creative play with other children.

In the 50s Piaget realised that pretend play doesn't really emerge till the child has at least single word utterances.

Margaret Brown from Melbourne University has taken a different approach to play development in young children, basing her analysis on studies of creative play from the 70s and 80s. An analysis grid from her 2001 article is in your pack showing four features of creative play:

  1. Decontextualisation - that is, the growing ability of children aged about 2;6 to make any object stand for another, ending with completely imaginary play objects.
  2. Decentring - that is the way that play is first focused on the child herself, and later actions are done on or with others, then the child takes on another character and may play with an imaginary friend.
  3. Sequencing - the way that play sequences are gradually extended into quite complex, lengthy play periods
  4. Planning - the way the child gets play materials ready and uses them in an orderly way and may develop a fairly fixed order over time.

In her work Margaret Brown is very interested in the actions of the caregiver too, not just the child. Her work is more in a Vygotskian tradition than the MP; she is looking at the way parents and care-givers extend and challenge children to develop. One way she does this is by looking at the date when the parent models features of creative play, and then she looks for these features emerging in the play of the children. It could be some months later. (Morelock, Brown & Morrissey, 2003).

Now if we use this more analytical play framework, where is Christina at, would you say?

Activity: Have a look at the grid in your pack and with your neighbour discuss what you saw Christina doing. Can you assign a level to each of the four features of creative play?


  • Decontextualisation - probably level 2
  • Decentration - level 2 or 3
  • Sequencing - maybe level 3
  • Planning - maybe level 2

Now when I am doing this, I am not suggesting that you use this grid with parents. I am trying to raise your awareness about the range of ways we can observe and classify creative play in preschool deaf children. Of course, some parents may well be interested in it too and we can use these analyses to discuss emerging creative play with parents and caregivers.

Brown found that the deaf children in their study didn't have as much imaginative play as hearing children (Brown et al, 2001) and they tended to have repetitive sequences. This is, in my view, probably connected to a much smaller spoken language vocabulary in the children she studied. She studied deaf children who were all using spoken language and they had hearing parents.

If you have played with children from aged 1 to 2, you will know that at first their imaginations are very limited. They may make a boat or a train out of available materials and for many months they may have no way of moving on from this to build a creative sequence. Gradually, as their experience of going on boats or trains increases, their vocabulary round the train experience grows, and the connections between these activities and words become stronger, so that eventually the creativity of the child is able to take off. It's not a quick thing. Eventually they are able to take on the role of the ticket inspector, the guard with the flag, the person with the trolley etc. So as they build their semantic webs, they build real-world experience at the same time, their schema, and these developments are revealed in their creative play.

It's hard to say which starts first, the creative play or the language development. The two processes seem to be inter-dependent.

Development of creative play in deaf and hearing children

  • How parents can model Decontextualisation, Decentration, Sequencing & Planning (Morelock et al, 2003)
  • Parents of very able hearing toddlers are able to use much more modelling and extending (Edmiston, 2011)
  • Sharing these techniques with parents of deaf children

Notes: The study which I would like to report on now is unfortunately not in the SSC, but those of you who are educational psychologists will probably be able to get hold of it. It's from a journal called Roeper Review, which is about gifted children. Margaret Brown collaborated with other researchers to compare the creative play of deaf children, average hearing children and gifted children over the age range about 15-30 months. It was a small study, there were only 9 children involved, 3 from each group. What is interesting to me is the type of language the parents of the gifted children were using.

They were extending their children's creative play by making real world connections, for example pointing out the similarities to the child's experiences in their family or daily activities. They used a lot of quite complex talk, far beyond what their child could currently produce. The researchers analysed what they call 'verbal transformations' that is, when the mother takes something and uses it to represent something else. For example, taking a small piece of cloth the mum might say 'this can be my blanket'. They noticed a lot of verbal transformations, and many analogies and real-world links in the parent language to the gifted children. The gifted group had a lot more creative play.

One of the main reasons for this is probably that the language development of the gifted group was much more advanced. The hearing parents of the deaf children in the study were spending a lot of time trying to get eye contact with their child and establishing with speech and eye contact what it was they were focusing on.

There are a number of conclusions we could make about applying these techniques to play with deaf children: that we should perhaps be trying using BSL, another natural language, modelled by a fluent Deaf BSL user. This has implications for the role of the hearing parent who may not ever reach this level of fluency in sign, because it takes a lot of time and effort. Or when parents are using speech we should persist over a longer period using these same techniques with deaf children, to allow their vocabulary and world knowledge to continue to develop into the primary years. Or perhaps we should be doing both these things. The first, working with fluent BSL nursery workers, needs much more discussion because it raises many cultural and personal issues for parents and for services.

The final piece of research I would like to refer to is a very personal account of a father reflecting on creative play with his hearing son aged about 7-9. It is apparent that this child is in a very privileged position, with a lot of access to cultural capital, because the father (Edmiston, 2011) uses many classic myths and legends in their play. His point is that ethical identity is developed by considering the viewpoint of others in creative play. Extended creative play with peers continues into middle childhood, although perhaps less often with a parent. This father decides that the exploration of choices his son goes through helps him become an ethical young man later on, one who can show restraint and can empathise with others. I have used this example because the language we often use with deaf children is so limited, these opportunities to explore choices and identity are often not given. What I found interesting about the data in this chapter is the fact that actually the dialogue between father and son was fairly straightforward, the ideas being discussed were complex. These same ideas could be explored with parents of deaf children to empower them to continue creative play activities into later childhood which perhaps they may feel should be attempted less once the child starts school. There are good reasons to continue adult involvement in creative play much longer. This is also another strong argument for bilingualism: if a child cannot easily access these complex emotions, perspectives and ideas through spoken language, can they do it using a signed language?


  • How can we empower parents and early years practitioners with these findings?
  • Can we use best practice and poor practice on the Play DVD to have discussions with parents and nursery workers?

Notes: So in conclusion about creative play, parents, care-givers and nursery staff can be encouraged to develop a wider range of techniques to encourage child-led play, and in a wide range of contexts, indoors, outside and with a peer group. This is going to help deaf children's linguistic development and their learning skills later at school. We are often working with deaf children with extreme language delay, despite the promise of early diagnosis and an early start to intervention. So we must remember the right of the child to have a fluent language established by five, as the Scottish Early Years Standards point out, to encourage the development of thinking, feeling and imagining. If we think about that with an open mind, it may lead us to consider a wider range of approaches, and a wider range of early years practitioners to work with too.

I hope the Play DVD will be useful for you to show parents examples of good practice in play and ways of encouraging language development through play. There are also examples of very adult-controlled activities on the DVD. You will find examples of poor practice too, and times when communication really is not working. The DVD is a snapshot of 10 ordinary families, showing how they play and interact with their deaf children. The DVD positions the family with the deaf child as at the centre of the early years team, and in control of the process. We wanted to show parents that other parents were living under a very wide range of situations, and that they had found a way to develop language and play skills.

However, this still leaves a role for the teacher of deaf children, the speech and language therapist, the early years practitioners and the educational psychologist. We can inform ourselves as much as possible about techniques to support the family and to develop the deaf child's languages, their minds, and their imagination.


Brown, PM, Field, W & Bortoli, A (2001) Structures underpinning pretend play and word production in young hearing children and children with hearing loss. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education. 6 (1)15-31.

Department for Education and Skills (2006) Monitoring protocol for deaf babies and children: How to use this protocol; Level 2 materials; and folder of forms for recording development. Early Support Pilot Programme: ESPP29, ESPP30, ESPP31 Accessed 2.11.12

Edmiston, B (2011) 'We are hunters and gatherers of values': dramatic play, early childhood pedagogy, and the formation of ethical identities. Chapter 4 in: Sue Rogers, 'Rethinking play and pedagogy in early childhood education'. Abingdon: Routledge.

Morelock, M, Brown, PM & Morrissey, A (2003) Pretend Play and Maternal Scaffolding. Roeper Review, 26 (1) 41-51.

Pepper, J & Weitzman, E (2004) It takes two to talk. Toronto: The Hanen Centre

Sylva, K,Melhuish, E, Sammons, P, Siraj-Blatchford, I & Taggart, B (2004) The Effective Provision of Pre-School Education (EPPE) Project: Final Report: A Longitudinal Study Funded by the DfES 1997-2004. Institute of Education, University of London/ Department for Education and Skills/Sure Start, London.
Accessed 2.11.12