Two children having an adventure, climbing and stepping in a river exploring a beautiful natural area.


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
Happy face emoji with flapping hands

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


For children, this is precisely the role played by recess; research shows that kids return from a session on the playground better able to focus their attention and to engage their executive function faculties. Yet at schools all over the country, recess has been reduced or even eliminated in order to generate more “seat time” spent on academic learning. The notion that time away from concentrated mental work is effectively time wasted is one of several wrongheaded notions we hold regarding breaks—wrongheaded, in this case, because the ability to attend to such work declines steadily over time, and is actually refreshed by a bout of bodily exertion. Parents, teachers, and administrators who want students to achieve academically should be advocating for an increase in physically active recess time.

The Extended Mind – Annie Murphy Paul

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
Monotropism In Practice

Secondly, the purpose of play is to self-discover, to self-motivate. To be enjoyable. The moment you have told a child they’re Playing All Wrong, and enforced your idea of ‘correct’, well, that’s not play. That’s control by you./

Now, let’s look at some autistic reality. Autistic children are not broken versions of other children. They play differently because that’s necessary for their different brain type. Their brains are meant to super-focus. That’s how they learn. So concentrating on a toy/

And finding out every possible fascination about that one toy, that’s totally correct for an autistic child. From that, they can then begin to generalise, e.g. from a toy dog, learning about dog breeds, temperaments, care, communication, skills, equipment, etc. Form, shape/

An autistic child will also want to keep their brain operational. This means socialising differently, to respect that. Pushing them into ‘normalised socialising’ actually causes brain ‘shutdown’ or meltdown events, which are terrifying for the child, not a splendid idea/

An autistic child will often naturally want to play somewhere quieter, often away from fluorescent lighting. Minimising eye contact, playing in parallel with another child. That’s good and appropriate autistic play. That’s a good set of signs of self-care and self-learning/

So, what can we do to ensure that autistic children can learn, and are treated respectfully and cheerfully by the non-autistic children? We can teach people about autism, and why they need to play differently. We can help organise places for them to play, their way/

And we can look out for the child being ostracised or bullied by non-autistic children who take an instant ‘dislike’ them, because the autistic child is using a completely natural but different social signalling system. Getting autistic children to realise they’re misreading them

We can help explain to the autistic child why the non-autistic ones play differently, and why they need to do that. Why they need to make a lot of eye contact with others, and why they might incorrectly think everyone has to do that. We can be a good ally, an affirming support/

We can perhaps set up a play club around the autistic child’s interests, for like-minded children who want to play that way (not come in and force their own play style on the situation). We can then watch the autistic child flourish, and develop expertise and dedication/

We have to stop the idea that autistic children are ‘broken’ and need fixing. The work of… shows that autistic people are great collaborators with one another. But misunderstandings happen fast when put with a non-autistic companion. It’s that simple.

Ann Memmott MA 🌈 

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

There are lots of opinions out there about autistic people and playing.  You may have read or been told that autistic people won’t be able to play imaginatively, or that if they do, they are likely to take longer to do so. You may have been told that autistic children play inappropriately with toys.  The fact is that many autistic people play very imaginatively from very young ages! Many of us have vivid imaginations, compose music, write poetry and novels, are amazing artists. Please do not assume that autistic people will be unable to be imaginative.

Sometimes we play in different ways from other people – this is what is often referred to as inappropriate. We would argue that there is no right or wrong way to play. 

Autistic play can be:

  • Playing with toys in unexpected ways (e.g., spinning wheels on a car)
  • Lining up toys (for many of us that is the game by itself)
  • Playing with a toy for longer/shorter than you may expect for a child’s age
  • Word play and puns
  • Interest in things you’d expect in a younger/older child
  • Repetition, and repetition, and repetition, and repetition…
  • Attachment to objects you may not expect e.g., spoons, DVD cases
  • Intense/fleeting focus
  • Playing in parallel (alongside a friend) or individually
  • Sensory seeking
  • Stimming (self-stimulatory behaviours)
  • Acting out scenes from TV, movies, books etc.
  • Echolalia (repeating a word or phrase said by someone else)
  • Palilalia (repeating a word or phrase they made up themselves)
  • Scripting games before they happen
  • Making up own rules for games where there are already established rules
  • Taking on other people’s personas
  • Highly integrated into the game – deep focus
  • Organising/sorting items
  • Creating patterns
  • And much more!

While some of these may look quite different, autistic people around the world play in these ways, and it is an important part of autistic culture.  Supporting autistic play is essential for good mental health and it can be done in the following ways:

  • Accept the way we play
  • Praise creativity and imagination
  • Support special interests
  • Parallel play (may or may not turn into co-operative play)
  • Buy toys they are actually interested in
  • Don’t always wait for special occasions
Autistic Play — Children and Young People — Autism Understanding Scotland

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

Self-Directed Executive Functioning

We hypothesized that time spent in less-structured activities would give children opportunities to practice self-directed executive functioning, and lead to benefits. To investigate this possibility, we collected information from parents about their 6–7 year-old children’s daily, annual, and typical schedules. We categorized children’s activities as “structured” or “less-structured” based on categorization schemes from prior studies on child leisure time use. We assessed children’s self-directed executive functioning using a well-established verbal fluency task, in which children generate members of a category and can decide on their own when to switch from one subcategory to another. The more time that children spent in less-structured activities, the better their self-directed executive functioning. The opposite was true of structured activities, which predicted poorer self-directed executive functioning. These relationships were robust (holding across increasingly strict classifications of structured and less-structured time) and specific (time use did not predict externally-driven executive functioning). We discuss implications, caveats, and ways in which potential interpretations can be distinguished in future work, to advance an understanding of this fundamental aspect of growing up.

Frontiers | Less-structured time in children’s daily lives predicts self-directed executive functioning

Activity-Permissive Settings

ACTIVITY-PERMISSIVE SETTINGS are still the exception in schools and workplaces, but we ought to make them the rule; we might even dispense with that apologetic-sounding name, since low-intensity physical activity clearly belongs in the places where we do our thinking. Meanwhile, medium- and high-intensity activity each exerts its own distinct effect on cognition—as the psychologist Daniel Kahneman has discovered for himself.

The Extended Mind – Annie Murphy Paul

The tight connection between thinking and moving is a legacy of our species’s evolutionary history.

The Extended Mind – Annie Murphy Paul

Further reading,