Research News

New faculty: Erin Barton studies the science of play

Erin Barton, assistant professor of special education (John Russell/Vanderbilt)

For Erin Barton, work is play—literally. Barton’s research focuses on identifying evidence-based practices for teaching young children with disabilities how to engage in play skills.

A former special education teacher in the Chicago Public School system, she has observed the challenges of this firsthand, particularly in students with autism.

“Children with disabilities generally have a delay in play, and that’s a struggle because they need to be able to play in order to be included by their typically developing peers,” she said. “Play is important because it involves communication as well as social, motor and adaptive skills, which are key to the child’s learning, development and growth.”

Barton’s interest in the role of play for children with disabilities grew while she was in the Ph.D. program at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College. “I was drawn to understand these social challenges that children with disabilities encounter, but I was intrigued because there seemed to be so little research,” she said.

After graduating from Peabody in 2007, she served as co-director of the Oregon Institute for Autism in Early Childhood at the University of Oregon. She then spent three years at the University of Colorado-Denver’s School of Education and Human Development as an assistant professor of early childhood education and conducted research at the Technical Assistance Center for Social and Emotional Interventions for young children.

“Doing this kind of work is what I love,” Barton said. “[rquote]Designing studies, graphing data, working with graduate students—for me it’s like play. I would keep doing it, even if I won the lottery.”[/rquote]

Barton’s return to her alma mater has been a welcome homecoming. She and her husband, Dan, both competitive runners, have settled into a home in the 12South area and welcomed a baby in late summer.

“It’s really nice to be back in Nashville and at Peabody, where I received the best possible training in special education,” she said. “I could not be happier to be back.”

In the spring Barton will teach a master’s level special education class. She also will continue her research identifying effective practices that are feasible for teachers to implement in preschool classrooms, rather than clinical or lab settings.

“I never want to be too far removed from the families who are struggling to find resources for their children with disabilities,” she said.

View the complete list of new university faculty for 2013-14.

View the complete list of new medical faculty for 2013.