The Importance of “Active Participation”, “Whistle While You Work”

Last week I spoke about the significance of intrinsic motivation. This is important not just for children on the spectrum, but for all. This week, I would like to write about the significance of “active participation.”  Lets begin with a definition of “active participation.” When I looked up the definition, this is what I found: the involvement, either by an individual or a group of individuals, in their own governance or other activities, with the purpose of exerting influence. (Source: RHW  One can watch a child do the same activity under different circumstances, and each one is not active participation. For instance, if a child is promised a reward if he reads a book, and he does so, he is doing the activity, but most likely not actively participating. Now, if a child picks up the same book because he is genuinely interested in reading that book, he is actively participating. The grey area is if a child is prompted to read a book with the promise of a reward, and the child chooses a book he is genuinely interested in. The child reads the book out of his interest, and although he or she is prompted by the reward, it is still active participation .

In my eyes, intrinsic motivation and play and active participation are partners. Wouldn’t it be great if our kids engaged in work like they do play? Well, what if we altered their perspective on work and play? Or even altered our own? What if our work felt more like our play? Wouldn’t we engage longer?  In our work then, as the definition explains, we would be doing it with purpose, making decisions and exerting influence instead of running through the motions to get the prize. I do think many of us adults have difficulty with this concept because our society has led us to believe that busy, dedicated, stressed, multitasking, hurried and productive are the only ways in which we prove ourselves to be responsible adults. What if we were to take some of those words out and only use dedicated and productive, and then could that fit into both categories of work and play? What if we worked for hours, not because of what we get at the end (a paycheck, promotion, reputation), but also because we truly enjoyed what we were doing at the moment? Wouldn’t the results (paycheck, reputation, promotion) be similar? When we play (as adults) some examples may be skiing, bowling, reading, painting, boating, etc. Aren’t we at that time:

a) intrinsically motivated?

b) escaping reality for a bit?

c) more concerned about what we are doing than what we will get when we are done?

d) having fun because we get to decide what, where, when, and how?

e) actively participating in the activity?

We get involved because the activity is appealing to us. We are stimulated, but not to the point of being stressed; we are challenged at just the right level, and we are adapting to the requirements of the activity, not because someone else told us to do it or told us we should do it, but because it just feels good doing it. When we are actively participating in these activities, we are fully attentive to them, to the here and now. We are not concerned about the end primarily, and although there may often be a positive benefit at the end (being in shape, producing a beautiful portrait, etc.), that is not why we are doing the activity. We often get to shut off the daily stresses of our minds and focus on what we enjoy.

When we “play” in this manner we are free to experiment and explore, which means we are free of fear. We control our time and actions in the activity. We feel confidence in the skills we have presently, thereby moving us to move beyond what we have and developing new skills.

When our clients are intrinsically motivated and actively participating in their own therapy or learning, they are focused, fearless, practicing a skill until it is mastered by their own free will,  motivation, and curiosity. They are in a fearless state thereby freeing them to adapt to a new, higher level skill in their play. What they have previously been doing is easy and now can happen spontaneously as they naturally move to the next level or step. This then is the client’s decision to move on, adapt, and practice, and it is all done with enthusiasm. They are engrossed in what they are doing. They feel they are in control of themselves and what they are doing.

To be able to facilitate this type of development, play-work takes skills of attentiveness and  listening. What onlookers sometimes do not realize is that to take responses of a client, one must facilitate and organize so that it is still in the client’s control and will and that they are engrossed and yet productive so their own needs do not look like “work” on the part of the therapist. It does still take skill.  This type of facilitating aids the client in their own health, development, and growth, but only looks like the client is playing and having fun. As Music Therapists, we are very fortunate that our means of therapy in and of itself lends itself to this openness. Watching the clients movement or listening to their sounds and matching and supporting (validating)  the client and simultaneously giving their activity rhythmical or phrase’s structure organizes the play together. The client in now engaged co-actively, and their activity is not an isolated one anymore. The client will decide when and how they will add to the musical, playful exchange as trust and confidence is built through the constancy of matching, supporting, and validating in song. This will allow the client to take the next step out of his own motivation to do so.

I always think to myself of the opportunities missed when I hear a teacher or staff say to a student “You didn’t come here to have fun.”  What if we set up our work and said “Okay, get ready to play, you can start when the whistling begins!” Think of the endless, long- term possibilities. How much fun our work can be?

Antoinette Morrison MT-BC

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