It’s Us!: Disabled & Neurodivergent Children At Play in Brookings, South Dakota, USA

Five dolls dressed in white sit on a wooden floor, surrounded by various playtime medical equipment, including a toy stethoscope, blood pressure monitor, and a stuffed animal.
Five dolls dressed in white sit on a wooden floor, surrounded by various playtime medical equipment, including a toy stethoscope, blood pressure monitor, and a stuffed animal.

We received a DEY mini-grant to help us launch a project that reflected the young children and other kin in our community who are disabled and neurodivergent. Tend is a 501(c)3 nonprofit on Očéthi Šakówin land (in what some people call Brookings, South Dakota) that is devoted to holistically supporting young children and their adults, including by hosting playgroups in a thoughtfully-prepared community space. We are led by a founder and teacher-leader who is disabled and neurodivergent, and who specializes in highly-individualized education (trained in Montessori and inclusive education). 

Play offers a perfect opportunity for young children – and their adults! – to explore concepts related to disability. We have observed connections to their daily lives being made by children who have played with the set of dolls and tools that we acquired using grant funding. For instance, upon recognizing devices like ear defenders or a tablet used for communication, they have exclaimed “it’s just like [friend’s name] has!” Rather than a narrative full of pity like in mainstream society, the adjectives that children put forth to describe these learning tools are ones like “cool,” “pretty,” and “…like mine,” full of the acceptance that we hope to keep nourishing in these young humans as they grow.

This proposal is most closely related to the DEY principal goal of “[promoting] appropriate practices in early childhood classrooms and to support educators in counteracting policies and practices that undermine whole child health and optimal learning.” There is a significant lack of affirming representation for disabled and neurodivergent children in our community, which is harmful. Based on lived experience, our team understands the importance of representation in cultivating both self- and societal acceptance. Representing disability as the normal human experience it is, from children’s earliest days, benefits *all* children (and their adults, too). 

For example, we can not only normalize the use of assistive technology, but also help community members of all ages to understand etiquette involved with each, which promotes safety and wellbeing (such as not to play with a service dog, or touch a person’s wheelchair without asking). Beyond DEY’s principal goals, this project united the four core goals of anti-bias education, and it also supported the vision DEY has of early childhood education involving “interactive, relational, playful learning experiences” to help young children grow in the world around them.

We faced some fairly significant hurdles during the period in which we launched this project. The first involved shipping delays in the fourth quarter, primarily because some items we had ordered were made-to-order. We also moved spaces at the new year, which can be stressful under normal circumstances, but was further complicated by a calculated attempted copying of our unique programming by a well-established nonprofit in our community, from whom we had rented space in the two years prior to our move. It was incredibly disappointing to experience an organization with hundreds of thousands more dollars in funding than us try to dupe our participants and take credit for our hard work. Fortunately, our grassroots organization is feisty and we have persevered! DEY’s patience with our reporting is something we greatly appreciated. 

A beautiful thing about this project is that it has limitless potential – we still intend to expand on it by creating education on social media, and would like to design extensions like nomenclature cards that can be used in Montessori classrooms specifically (since we know from experience in the Montessori community that disability representation is something many guides could improve on). Having the hands-on materials in our playgroups is certainly priceless, but we can go beyond that! We are so grateful to DEY for your role in facilitating our project. 

Aside from our playgroups, we have two events coming up this month – one celebrating our city being an “Early Learner” community and the other a listening session for caregivers of disabled and neurodivergent children, put on by our city’s Disability Awareness Committee – that our founder is participating in and where our learning tools might make their appearance!

Funds were used in full to purchase dolls with a diversity of physical characteristics, that more closely represent a sample of children from around the world, doll-sized assistive technology and medical devices from Child Life Specialist vendor The Butterfly Pig, and basic clothing so our dollies would not be cold during our frigid winter (😉).