Program Director and Facilitator – Sue McLaren
I first became involved with the Animal Fun program in mid 2009 as the Research Coordinator for the Healthway funded randomised controlled trial into the effectiveness of the program. I managed the research team and personally tested over 500 children in a range of measures to assess their motor skills, social skills, and self perception. I have also co-authored our three published papers on the program and our research findings. In 2016 Curtin University granted me the license to the Animal Fun program. I am looking forward to the opportunity of sharing our program with you and explaining how Animal Fun can help to resolve some of the issues you may be facing in the classroom. We can make the day more fun and enjoyable for you and the children in your care whilst addressing curriculum and quality guidelines.
Where did it all begin?
Back in 1989 my youngest son was diagnosed with a speech delay by our local child health nurse. He was 18 months old but only had a couple of intelligible words. We began speech therapy within the public health system and received group play based therapy on an ad hoc basis. In 1990 we moved to New York with my husband’s job and this proved to be not only an exciting adventure – but a life changing experience.
In New York, my son was eligible to attend a Head Start Pre-K program. he was comprehensively assessed by a multidisciplinary team – speech pathologist, occupational therapist, psychologist, hearing specialist, ophthalmologist, paediatrician and special education teacher. The resulting diagnosis was that he had a phonological speech disorder and developmental dyspraxia (difficulty with motor planning and fine motor manipulation of tools such as scissors). he was left handed and completely ambidextrous. An individualised education plan was drawn up and he began classes in a small group of 10 children with a teacher and two assistants. He received individual speech therapy twice a week and occupational therapy once a week. His progress in this setting was nothing short of astounding.
For me, the program was also life changing. Parents were encouraged to attend a weekly group session facilitated by the school social worker. We could discuss the concerns we had about our children, meet other parents whose children had special needs and listen to guest speakers who shared their knowledge with us. I was a fairly confident mother, having grown up in a family of 8 children and always being surrounded by babies and children, but these groups highlighted to me just how little I knew about child development and the positive impact that early intervention could have on a child’s life.
I saw my little boy progress from a child who had become withdrawn and aware that others could not understand him to a confident, happy child who looked forward to school , participating fully in all that was on offer. By the time we returned to Australia in 1992 his teachers were unaware that he had ever had a speech problem. He achieved great results at school, participated in a range of sports and had a great group of friends.
Paying it forward
When I returned to Perth and learnt that there were long waiting lists for children to access the public health system for speech and occupational therapy I realised I needed to do something to help other Mum’s and children by sharing what I had learnt in New York. So I went back to University to study a Bachelor of Social Science (Children & Family Studies) and started up Chatterbox Playgroup – for children with speech and language difficulties.
It was at Chatterbox that I met so many wonderful children and their families – but one special little boy made a huge impact on my life. Thomas was happy, affectionate and funny and today would be diagnosed as being on the Autism Spectrum. I formed a close relationship with him and his family and eventually was employed by the family to act as his special needs assistant throughout Kindergarten, Pre-Primary and Year One. Working with Thomas within the school setting and helping him and the other children to navigate through his challenges was both rewarding and memorable. Thomas taught me patience!
After Chatterbox and working individually with Thomas, I focused on completing my Degree after which I took up a role within Edith Cowan University as the International Program Coordinator – which involved supporting students in Singapore who were completing their Early Childhood Degrees and acting as Professional Placement Coordinator so that those who chose to come to Perth for their Practicum Placements could be involved in a play based curriculum first hand. After 5 years at ECU I changed direction again and took up a position at ASeTTS – an agency that offers support to refugees who have suffered torture and trauma.
The Perfect Opportunity
Most of my working life since New York has been about putting theory into practice – sharing knowledge and best practice to make a real difference in the lives of children and their parents. I was very interested in finding out more about early intervention and so when I received a call from Professor Jan Piek in 2009 inviting me to join the Animal Fun Project – it felt that I had come full circle. Here was a program which was seeking to improve the motor skills and social skills of young children in the pre-school years to ensure that they were school ready and had the best opportunity of participating in formal schooling and maximising their potential. I jumped at the chance.
At the completion of the research, I was thrilled to discover that our program showed great results. We were able to demonstrate that yes, the Animal Fun program did improve the motor skills and social skills of young children and was also shown to have a significant impact on inattention and hyperactive behaviours.
All that remained was to translate these research findings into practice!
I knew from the Research Project that the teachers and the children really loved the Animal Fun program and our results provided the evidence of it’s effectiveness all that was needed now was to get the word out there.
The research team was very supportive of my desire to develop what was little photocopied handbook into a set of useful resources and the Mental Health Commission of Western Australia also saw the merit in developing the project into a program to be used in Early Childhood Education – Kindergartens, Pre-Schools, Child Care Centres and as a useful tool for those in allied health professions working with young children and provided us with a small grant to assist with the development of the resources have today.
Since 2012 I have been busy spreading the word about Animal Fun – presenting at national and international conferences, conducting workshops and seminars. We are now in over 2000 schools/centres around Australia and internationally.
If you would like to learn more about our program and how if can be of benefit to children and teachers please get in contact to arrange a free 30 minute consultation in person or by telephone.
The Program Development and Research Team – Curtin University
Emeritus Professor Jan Piek (now retired) is from the School of Psychology and Speech Pathology at Curtin University. Over the last 20 years, Jan and her team have researched extensively in the area of motor development and disability, specialising in infant motor development and the impact of preterm birth on motor ability and DCD in children and young adults. Jan was the Chief Investigator on the Animal Fun Research project and the initiator of the program.
Associate Professor Clare Roberts (now retired) is previously from the School of Psychology and Speech Pathology at Curtin University. Her interests include clinical child psychology, mental health promotion, and the prevention of anxiety and depression.
Associate Professor Rosanna Rooney is the Co-Director of the Aussie Optimism program and a senior lecturer in the School of Psychology and Speech Pathology at Curtin University. Her research interests include depression, postnatal depression across cultures, mental health across cultures, and the prevention of anxiety and depression in children.
Professor Leon Straker is from the School of Physiotherapy and Exercise Science at Curtin University. His past clinical experience includes working as a paediatric physiotherapist in a tertiary hospital and health promotion work with school children. Leon’s research interests include the impact of technology on health with a focus on prevention, sedentariness and computer and electronic game use by children. Leon currently holds a National Health and Medical Research Council Senior Research Fellowship.
Dr Lynn Jensen is a physiotherapist with more than 25 years experience working with children with typical development and those with a range of developmental disabilities. Lynn also lectures in the School of Physiotherapy and Exercise Science at Curtin University.
Professor Tanya Packer previously from the School of Occupational Therapy & Social Work at Curtin University is now the Director of the School of Occupational Therapy at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia in Canada. Tanya’s research interests include disability, rehabilitation, and self-management.
Dr Alma Dender previously a senior lecturer in the School of Occupational Therapy and Social Work at Curtin University. Her research interests include play assessment and intervention in occupational theory and practice, culturally appropriate play assessment, Indigenous health and occupational performance, international fieldwork experiences, and play and links to neuroscience.
Dr Robert Kane is a senior lecturer from the School of Psychology & Speech Pathology at Curtin University. Bob’s area of expertise is in research design and data analysis in applied behavioural research.