At our learning space, we provide learners fresh air, daylight, large muscle movement, and the freedom to stim.
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.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
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
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
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
Autistic Play at Forest School : pretend play characteristics seen otherwise | Forest School Association
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
- How Using ‘Interests’ Can Help Build Connection to Understanding and to Developing Skills (Wenn Lawson) – ‘As autistic individuals we find it heaps easier to connect to understanding when the topic, sentence, concept or idea you are wanting us to appreciate can be related in some way to areas of our interest or attention.’
- Building Super-Highways – Why Monotropism Works for Autistics (Nanny Aut 2021) – ‘We play differently, because we learn differently, because our brains are wired differently.’
- Learning to play. No. Playing to learn. (Nanny Aut 2021) – ‘Autistic children focus on the mechanics of the world, through pattern making and identifying connections. We organise, sort, line up and categorise.’
- Autistic Play at Forest School : pretend play characteristics seen otherwise(Stefania Donzelli 2021) ‘one key step is to acknowledge the existence of patterns in the ways autistic children experience play and think about their play behaviours not as something puzzling or problematic, but rather as characteristics of autistic play culture‘
- The double empathy problem: salience and interpersonal flow (slides, Damian Milton 2018) – ‘the flow-like states brought about by the pursuit of ‘special interests’ or the repetition of actions can be seen as a necessary coping strategy for people and not ‘behaviours’ to be controlled or regulated.’
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 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 https://dart.ed.ac.uk/research/nd-iq/?fbclid=IwAR0r1tF1ARm2XKkgphruAksGENk-W1V00WzOKNhrwolSg5gLd_P1q-CjFDQ… 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 🌈
…one key step is to acknowledge the existence of patterns in the ways autistic children experience play and think about their play behaviours not as something puzzling or problematic, but rather as characteristics of autistic play culture: expression of their neurological functioning and of their experience of living in a society that sees autism through a deficit-based lens. Practically, this implies focusing on “what children do and what it means to them”, instead of paying attention only to the external features of play and how they appear deficient in relation to normative developmental frameworks (Conn, 2015: 1193; Conn and Drew 2017; Person, 2020; Willans, 2020).Autistic Play at Forest School : pretend play characteristics seen otherwise | Forest School Association
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:
Autistic Play — Children and Young People — Autism Understanding Scotland
- 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
What I did instead was pace, for about 8-10 hours a day. Back and forth, back and forth, wearing footpaths in the grass until my Dad would make me move to a different part of the yard so the grass could have a chance. (It wasn’t usually able to grow back. There were plenty of days where 10 hours was an undercount.) Sometimes I would walk on my toes; sometimes I’d adopt big, stiff postures, or bounce up and down. I’d move my arms high or low or to the side, but my arms were always moving — I’d flap my hands, or shake a stick, or, most often, shake a book in my hands. The book had to be just the right size, with just the right kind of paper, held in just the right spot. I destroyed dozens of books over the years this way; pretty soon, my parents learned to buy me cheap paperbacks specifically for this, to keep the other books safe. My mouth was open and my face was vacant. Sometimes you could hear me talking to myself, and if you listened, you would hear that I was scripting, or reciting lists. Usually I was silent. I would avoid other children and I refused to play with my own siblings; I wanted to do this instead. I would do this at preschool, at family gatherings, at church, and in the store. I would do this all day.
It alarmed everyone.
I did this through high school. I learned not to do it where other people could see, but the intensity didn’t abate. It only began to slowly fade away after I turned 17, replaced by other stims and some cognitive-motor changes and, perhaps, growing up. If you saw it when I was little, you can still find the traces of it now — I still pace when I’m working out a new idea. I wrap beads around my wrist instead of shaking a book to pieces. I still spend hours most nights doing repetitive activities while my mind wanders.
No one considered this “functional” play. Every expert saw this as something that was very likely harming my development — or, best case scenario, as an indication that I was having a hard time, with the behavior as a barometer for how bad things were. My parents ultimately didn’t try to get me to stop outright (for which I am profoundly grateful), but everyone agreed that it would be good if I could, and any fleeting reduction was celebrated or, at least, seen as a sign of progress.
My play — not my “behavior,” my play — was deeply functional, for me. Those hours and hours of often silent scripting while regulating my body let me develop a deep bank of fluent language that other people could understand. When I can rattle off fluid paragraphs to you about a topic, it’s because I’ve put in those hours of scripting and practice, even today — and because, long before I was practicing how to explain autism or talk about policy, I was practicing different sentence structures for hours in the backyard. That was not at all apparent from an outside point of view. But that’s what I was doing. And when I wasn’t scripting, I was making and reciting lists and schedules — and that was giving me a structure for understanding my world.
And most importantly? It just felt good. It was calming and reassuring. I am told that is one of the main developmental purposes of play, in fact.About “Functional Play” | Just Stimming…
Image credit: Rachel Dorsey: Autistic SLP, LLC
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
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
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 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