Two children having an adventure, climbing and stepping in a river exploring a beautiful natural area.
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There is nothing more human than play. 

Humans were designed to learn in play. In fact, nearly all mammals evolved this way.

Play’s Power

At our learning space, we provide learners fresh air, daylight, large muscle movement, and the freedom to stim.

Children must be challenged educationally, however the wisdom emanating from the building itself is explicit: children deserve and flourish in an atmosphere of love, community, mutual respect, beauty and a connectivity to nature.

The school building as third teacher
Humanoid figure with green hued skin wrapped in vines
Meditating with Trees by Heike Blakley

Children have evolved to learn mainly through thousands of hours of play. Play is a developmental powerhouse in a way no lesson plan or curriculum could be. 

The more we learn about the brain and body the more clear this has become. When we play and use our bodies we form connections between our neurons that can serve us for a lifetime. Play forms the basis of our social and emotional well-being. It teaches us to take risks and be okay with failure. It builds our abilities as problem solvers. And possibly most important this generation’s children, it bolsters their creativity and ability to generate novel ideas.  

Play’s Power

“There’s a lot of things that kids built,” he explains, looking around at the playground. “It’s not adults doing work; it’s kids doing work!”

Children need an environment with “the opportunity to engage in open, free play where they’re allowed to self-organize,” he adds. “It’s really a central part of being human and developing into competent adulthood.”

Play Hard, Live Free: Where Wild Play Still Rules : NPR Ed : NPR

Immediate Contact With the Outdoors: Fresh Air, Large Muscle Movement, Daylight, and Stimming

Give your kids the gift of daylight.

In order to maintain healthy attention kids need three things that are often in short supply in schools — fresh air, large muscle movement, and daylight. One of the easiest to fix, in many schools, is daylight.

How Will You Redesign Your School Over The Next Six Months?

William Alcott – and we’re talking early 1830s and he was, more or less, creating schools from almost nothing – talked about how the garden was essential, how a collection of distracting wonders was essential, how a covered porch – allowing learning to stay outdoors in any weather – was essential.

Imagine contemporary learning spaces that challenge every convention of the places we built as schools in the twentieth century. Imagine gathering spaces that encourage young people to work and play together in natural learning communities supported by teachers who create pathways that guide them towards adulthood. Imagine a merger of transparent natural and built environments that allow learners the delight of multisensory inputs through access to natural light, fresh air, and green space. Imagine a continuum of flexible spaces designed to create an atmosphere of choice and comfort as students pursue their interests and passions through transdisciplinary learning that fosters collaboration, critical thinking, creativity, and communication.

Timeless Learning: How Imagination, Observation, and Zero-Based Thinking Change Schools

school should go further than providing space, light, and air: “It should be a place where the child can feel that he belongs, where he can move in freedom, and where he can enjoy immediate contact with the outdoors.

The Design of Childhood: How the Material World Shapes Independent Kids

while stimming I am able to unravel the everyday ordinary barrage of sensory and social information that becomes overwhelming.

The Predictability, Pattern and Routine of Stimming | Judy Endow

Most of us stim because it calms us and helps alleviate our high levels of anxiety.

Siena Castellon

I can’t picture things in my head sitting still. I like to walk around and think.

Autistic Student

The research is clear, but truth be told I feel no need to justify allowing my students to play. Simply the fact that they so clearly want to play is sufficient for me. The joy it brings is more than enough.

We have only one childhood. When what should be a play-filled period of life is gone, it is indeed ‘lost’. And that’s the loss I am worried about.

So when we talk about restoring humanity in education, I can’t think of a better place to start than in play, especially with our youngest learners.

Play’s Power

Autistic and Monotropic Play

We play differently, because we learn differently, because our brains are wired differently.

Building Super-Highways – Why Monotropism Works for Autistics – Autistic Village

From our very early years, our style of learning has been misunderstood by NT (neurotypical) researchers. Indeed, they even pathologise it in the diagnostic manual, DSM 5, as ‘difficulties in sharing imaginative play’ and ‘lining up toys or flipping objects’. Our exploratory style of play is seen as a negative thing that needs to be addressed. They completely fail to take into account our different processing and learning styles that lies behind our choice to play a different way.

Our ability to specialise from an early age is described as ‘highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus (e.g., strong attachment to or preoccupation with unusual objects, excessively circumscribed or perseverative interests)’ – DSM 5. Our natural way of being is seen as deficient and needing to be fixed.

This failure to understand our neurology and recognise our way of being as equally natural and normal leads to damaging ‘therapies’ being promoted. These therapies look to correct our style of play, and our specialist-style focus on interests, ‘encouraging’ us to leave our natural style and instead mimic the more familiar NT style. Both therapists and parents believe they are doing something helpful and supportive, unaware that they are stealing a very valuable learning tool and leaving nothing but an empty box in its place.

We play differently, because we learn differently, because our brains are wired differently. And this difference has a value and reason behind it. Teaching us to play like NTs is like teaching a cat to behave like a dog ‘because everyone prefers dogs to cats’. There is this false belief that we get bullied because we are different – this isn’t true. We get bullied because children are taught to bully and attack difference. We get bullied because adults choose to support and promote a culture of conformity. Our difference is not the issue, people’s negative attitudes to difference is.

In learning terms, you deny us the opportunity to properly create and develop the essential connections that form the foundation of our knowledge structure. The autistic brain is designed to create these connections in a very particular way, and our natural style of play supports this.

Building Super-Highways – Why Monotropism Works for Autistics – Autistic Village

Source: Monotropism In Practice

Furthermore, much play has a theatrical element to it which is dependent on steps towards awareness which it will usually take monotropic children much longer to take.

Monotropism – Wrong Planet Syndrome

Parallel Play

We enjoy parallel play and shared activities that don’t require continual conversation. When we talk, it gets deep quickly. We discuss what’s real, our struggles, fears, desires, obsessions. We appreciate a good infodump, and there’s no such thing as oversharing. We swap SAME stories — sharing a time when we felt similarly in our own life, not as a competition, but to reflect how well we are listening to each other.

Lost in Translation: The Social Language Theory of Neurodivergence | by Trauma Geek | Medium

I want to spend time in parallel existence with you; let’s be alone together.

neurowonderful — neurowonderful: They’re here! Because you…

Related to parallel play is the ADHDer practice of body doubling.

But in the world of ADHD, a body double is someone who sits with a person with ADHD as he tackles tasks that might be difficult to complete alone.

Many people with ADHD find it easier to stay focused on housework, homework, bill paying, and other tasks when someone else is around to keep them company. The body double may just sit quietly. He may read, listen to music on headphones, or work on the task that the person with ADHD is working on. Hard work is simply more fun when someone else is nearby.

Getting Stuff Done Is Easier with a Friend

But why does a body double work? There are a few possible explanations. The simplest is that the body double serves as a physical anchor for the distracted individual who feels more focused by the presence of another person in their space. The distracted person feels responsible to and for the body double. This perception translates as­-I can’t waste this gift of time.

The Body Double: A Unique Tool for Getting Things Done | ADDA – Attention Deficit Disorder Association

But she wasn’t there to procrastinate. For an hour, Ms. Bee, a teacher in her 30s, live-streamed herself sorting the clothes on her account dedicated to ADHD: brainsandspoons. As the live stream went on, viewers jumped in to do their own laundry “with” her.

“Everybody was so encouraging,” said Ms. Bee, who learned she has ADHD as an adult. “It made it really feel like a group project, not just me by myself on camera. It definitely made the time go by faster.”

The ADHD community calls the practice “body doubling.”

‘Body doubling,’ an ADHD productivity tool, is flourishing online | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
What is body doubling?

If you imagine that an autistic kid at school is likely to be wrenched out of their attention tunnel multiple times every day, each time leading to disorientation and deep discomfort, you are on your way to understanding why school environments can be so stressful for many autistic students. If you can avoid contributing to that, you may find that you have an easier time with your autistic students: try entering into their attention tunnel when you can, rather than tugging them out of it. Parallel play is one powerful tool for this; start where the child is, show interest in what they’re focused on. If you do need to pull them out of whatever they’re focusing on, it’s best to give them a bit of time.

Craft, Flow and Cognitive Styles

Play and Psychological Safety

Play emerges from a sense of safety. Even the most playful animal won’t play when frightened or angry.

Monotropism – Wrong Planet Syndrome

Here, a desire for compliance with social norms and expectations involves ignoring obvious autistic joy and play, and equally ignoring obvious autistic fear.

Given how widely reported fear is among autistic people, we need to recognise that people who are constantly frightened and yet are carrying on with life and dealing with things are showing a lot of courage as well as determination.  Frightened or not, making the effort to perform so as to fit in is often exhausting and likely to be at the expense of other capacity  (see discussion of monotropism and see Colored spoons… and social codes where there is a version of ‘spoon theory’ which also builds on the idea that there is a limited supply of processing resources).

Monotropism – Culture and Ignorance

Further reading,

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Published by Ryan Boren

#ActuallyAutistic parent and retired tech worker. Equity literate education, respectfully connected parenting, passion-based learning, indie ed-tech, neurodiversity, social model of disability, design for real life, inclusion, open web, open source. he/they

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