The basic concept of “personal space” is an important social rule. It’s a simple idea–each of us has an invisible bubble around us where we feel safe, and if someone crosses into it we become uncomfortable. Most children instinctively sense when they enter someone else’s personal space and when theirs is crossed, but the special-needs child may need help learning these boundaries. She might forcefully invade her peer’s space, oblivious to how it makes him feel. And this could cause her to be rejected by peers and have difficulty making friends. Or your child’s inability to recognize when his own personal space has been invaded could potentially make him vulnerable to inappropriate conduct.
For some time, my step-daughter had difficulty with this concept. When visitors came over who were complete strangers to her, she would often cuddle up to them and even try to sit in their laps. This caused obvious discomfort for them, although they tried to be polite. I often had to intervene, re-direct my daughter, and apologize to the guest. My stepdaughter did not understand the principal of personal space, so we had to teach it to her. Here are some activities you can do with your son or daughter to help teach the concept. You can adapt them based upon your child’s ability to comprehend:
- Space Spin – Have your child stretch out his arms out straight on both sides, and turn him slowly in place, in a complete circle. Explain that this area is his “personal space.” Now you do the same and demonstrate “your” space. This helps the child to visualize what the space “looks” like. Now put your arms down at your sides and have your child slowly walk toward you. Tell him to stop just before he thinks he has reached the edge of your personal space. When he stops to make his guess, raise your arms out straight and slowly turn in place. If you bump him with your arm, he has to try again. “Nope, you’ve invaded my personal space and you’re cast out of the galaxy!” (The arms outstretched circle created in this example may create a bigger bubble than what true personal space encompasses for some people, but it doesn’t hurt to exaggerate when first teaching the concept. You can explain that the bubble changes in size depending on our relationship to others–see “Personal Space Circle” below.)
- Space Tag – In a large spacious area, like a park or back yard, have your child keep away from you as you try to invade his personal space. “I am an alien space invader, and I’m going to invade your space!” You don’t have to touch him for him to be it, just get very close, and when you do, say “I got you!” If your child complains that you didn’t tag her, explain that “personal space” is the area close around us, and that we don’t have to touch someone to enter it.
- Bumper Bubbles – With a group of children, play tag using hoola hoops. The children must hold the hoop around them as they run. The person who is it tries to “bump” his hoop into their hoops. If he bumps anyone, she is it. Also explain that if any player bumps any other player’s hoop accidentally during the game, their bubble “pops” and they are out. They must drop their hoop on the ground and sit inside it.
- Personal Space Circle – Using a long rope or cord, make a circle on the floor. Overlap the ends so that you are not making the largest circle possible. Have your child sit in the circle, and explain that personal space is smaller for people we are very close to. For example, we know our mom and dad, and brothers and sisters, so we feel more comfortable with each other. Our personal space circle is smaller with them.
Make the circle a bit larger, and explain that the circle gets a little bigger for friends and teachers. That’s because we know them, but we aren’t as close to them.
Make the circle as large as can be, and explain that for people we don’t know at all, like strangers, the personal space circle is a lot bigger. The less we know the person, the bigger the space should be.
Give your child a verbal cue, like gently saying the words “personal space,” as a reminder if you see her getting inappropriately close to someone. And teach your child what to do if someone invades his personal space.
If your child can understand, ask him questions: “When would it be okay to stand in someone’s personal space?” (Lining up for class, sitting next to someone on the school bus, etc.) Explain how there are times when we must be physically close to others, but we must keep our hands to ourselves and act respectfully.