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Free Choice

Children begin their day with "free choice" time. Barbara's room is organized into activity centers, which change periodically depending on the curriculum. Currently, one center features a water table with bubble mixture and a variety of bubble wands, cups and containers. Another center houses a Macintosh computer with a variety of adaptive devices, including switches and Intellikeys (Intellitools), an expanded keyboard. In the left-hand corner is a kitchen area equipped with appliances, utensils, plates and cups, as well as a table and chairs. Next to this is a dress-up area with sparkling dresses, suits, and a range of accessories. Towards the back of the room, an enclosed padded area, filled with plastic balls, is a big attraction for all the children. Every center is equipped with a set of relevant picture symbols attached to Velcro strips that are readily accessible to everyone. These symbols are routinely used by both children and adults to augment their play-based interactions. During free choice time, children choose where they want to be and are encouraged to initiate their own activities within centers.

video iconView Video Clip of students choosing outfits in the dress-up area.

Sabrina, an engaging five-year-old girl with cerebral palsy, cannot speak or point. To help her communicate her preferences, she sometimes uses an eye-gaze board, a simple apparatus consisting of a Plexiglas frame with Velcro tabs. During free choice time, Jan, Sabrina's aide, places the eye-gaze board perpendicular to Sabrina's wheelchair tray and fastens six pictures of her preferred activities (e.g., reading a book or listening to music) around its edges. Jan stands behind the board to gauge where Sabrina's eyes are pointing. By looking directly at one of the pictures, Sabrina chooses Bobby, Bobby, What Can You Do? her favorite electronic story book. Often, young children who are non-speaking are given one choice at a time and asked to indicate "yes" or "no," while typically developing children pick from a field of choices. By featuring a range of options, the eye-gaze board allows Sabrina to make authentic choices.

Kids fastening pictures to Sabrina's eye gaze board.Fellow classmates help fasten pictures to Sabrina's eye gaze board.

Once the choice is made, Jan connects a single switch on the left side of Sabrina's wheelchair tray to a small box-shaped interface which plugs directly into the computer. The software for Bobby, Bobby is loaded and Sabrina is on her own. Using its internal speech capability, the computer reads the story aloud while highlighting the words as they are spoken. This highlighting feature helps Sabrina make clear connections between the speech and text and develops her visual tracking abilities, which can be problematic in children with cerebral palsy. By hitting her switch with her left hand, Sabrina independently turns each page at the appropriate time. She clearly delights in the story, laughing to herself when the main character, Bobby, gets dirty playing in the mud. Like most children Sabrina is able to backtrack and independently reread the passages she most treasures.

Sabrina and Barbara at the computerSabrina chooses Bobby Bobby from a menu of book titles.

Martha, a five year-old girl with global developmental delays, is non-speaking and uses a wheelchair. Today, she is standing upright in her prone stander next to other children at the water table. Martha's aide, Beth, has programmed a BIGmack (Ablenet) switch to say "I want to pop the bubble" and has mounted this directly in front of Martha on the stander's tray. Hitting the switch is not an easy task for Martha, whose motor control is quite unreliable, but today she is motivated to give it her all. When Martha finally succeeds with her message, Beth blows an enormous bubble encouraging Martha to reach with her hands. Martha and her peers shriek with delight as she bats the bubble, popping it and spreading suds about. Martha activates her switch again to repeat the antic.

When Sabrina moves onto another activity, Lindsay, a four year old girl with Leigh's disease, takes a turn at the computer. Leigh's disease is a neurogenerative disorders that affects both movement and speech. Lindsay uses a wheelchair, and is able to activate switches and select large targets with her hands. Today, Lindsay requests a nursery rhyme activity from Intellipics, which she accesses via Intellikeys (both by Intellitools). On the Intellikeys overlay are four pictures representing different nursery rhymes. When Lindsay picks London Bridge is Falling Down, the first line of the nursery rhyme is sung aloud by the computer, accompanied by an animated picture of the story line. To activate each successive line of the rhyme, Lindsay must choose the "more" target on the right-hand side of the keyboard. Amanda, a non-disabled student, spontaneously joins Lindsay at the computer and they take turns choosing nursery rhymes.

computer with Intellikeys picture symbols.An IntelliKeys overlay enables children to choose their favorite nursery rhyme, which is then animated on the computer.

Gabriela, an ambulatory, speaking child with global developmental delays has chosen to listen to a tape in the music area. An Ablenet switch is attached to the tape player for the students who are more physically impaired. Gabriela chooses a tape and asks for help with inserting it into the tape player. She uses the switch to start and listens intently, swaying her body to the music. When she is ready to move onto another activity, Gabriela stops the music by pressing the switch again.


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This material was developed by the National Center to Improve Practice (NCIP)  in collaboration with the Center for Literacy and Disabilities (CLD)  at Duke University.   NCIP was funded by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs from October 1, 1992 - September 30, 1998, Grant #H180N20013.  Permission is granted to copy and disseminate this information.  If you do so, please cite NCIP.   Contents do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Department of Education, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by CLD, NCIP, EDC, or the U.S. Government.  This site was last updated in September 1998. 

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