Whether children are born with autism, cerebral palsy or another disability, they can learn through simply playing, just like their peers, according to Helene Prokesch, executive director of Lekotek of Georgia.
“We call it the power of play,” she says. “Kids don’t even realize they are developing new skills when they’re playing, but that’s what all children do.”
“Lekotek” is a Swedish word that means “play library,” and that’s exactly what the organization affords to children with disabilities—a library of toys, technology and tools suited to their various learning styles. Play specialists who work with clients at Lekotek have degrees in special education and a passion for children.
At the office in Gainesville, Valerie Cloud has been working with Braxten, a third grader with autism, for about two years. His mother, Sheila, has seen a marked improvement.
“When we first came here, he didn’t talk, but now he laughs, expresses his feelings and interacts with Valerie,” says Sheila. “She’s patient with him and they have evolved into a nice relationship. He opens up socially now and is able to interact with people. Before, he didn’t like going somewhere to interact with others, but he looks forward to coming here.”
The goal is to help children with disabilities fit into the regular classroom, and Lekotek uses accessible play and adaptive toys and technology to accomplish that goal,
according to Prokesch. This year’s grant from the Jackson EMC Foundation provided funds to purchase new toys and technology and to help ten families take part in the program.
Children visit Lekotek once a month for one-hour play sessions. During that hour they build cognitive abilities, fine motor skills and language skills while increasing their self-
esteem and motivation. Parents and siblings sit in on the professionally guided sessions, learning how to model play with the customized toys for their family members. At the end of each session, state-of-the-art toys and/or technologies are loaned to the family to play with at home.
“At Lekotek, often for the first time, children experience success while gaining confidence and acquiring new skills in an atmosphere of pressure-free learning,” says Prokesch. “What makes us unique is the component of play and integrating family into the sessions. If children are here, siblings don’t wait in another room but come in and play.”
After play sessions, families are sent home with adaptive toys (for ages 0-8) or technology equipment (for ages 8-12). Computers and iPads may be loaned and the Lekotek staff is quick to share apps and programs geared toward specific learning needs.
“We position a child for success, whether it’s literally or figuratively,” says Prokesch. “With certain equipment, we literally position children to enable them to track movement with their eyes or manipulate certain objects. Whatever the case, we focus on abilities, not disabilities.”
Prokesch brought Lekotek to Atlanta 34 years ago when she opened the first office in Atlanta’s Buckhead community.
The teaching model originated in Sweden in the 1960s when two mothers of children with disabilities created toys to facilitate play and learning at home in order to keep from institutionalizing their children. The concept came to America in the 1980s and Prokesch brought it to Georgia in 1983.
Today, Lekotek of Georgia operates with headquarters in Atlanta and five satellite offices, including the Gainesville site at 3485 McEver Road, which opened in 2011.