Saturday, August 23, 2008

Rock Games

We are visiting my son and his wife in Seattle where we are transfixed by the natural beauty all around us. Today, Nathan and his friend Eric, took us to see Puget Sound. Although my husband I were well-entertained just hiking and gazing, they were more prone to turning every environment into structured competition. At one point, they became focused not on the wide and amazing panorama before us but narrowed in on the rocks beneath our feet. Watching Nathan and Eric play inspired me to translate this big boy game into a potential little boy or girl game--just theoretically, you understand, as I don't have any little children to try my ideas on here. Mostly, I bring you games that I have tried with children not once but dozens of times. Still, I feel confident that with a little individual variation, I could take the enjoyable components of the big boy game and translate these into a simple game that a child with autism could understand and enjoy.

So, here is how the game evolved with Nate and Eric. First it was just a competition to see who could skip the rock the most times. This then became a competition requiring the most skips in ten throws--so a score was kept. Then the rules changed to who skipped the rock the furtherest after at least two skips. This was complicated a little more by requiring that the rock that was skipped be a poor skipping rock with some discussion as to what constituted the worst rocks. The rules changed at least a dozen more times, allowing them both to skip rocks until their arms ached--and then they used their left arms.

What these boys know, and what young player need to know, about playing is that they needed to challenge themselves in some way that requires increasing physical and mental skills. The challenge need not be overly complex--just complex enough to require full attention and concentration and result in more skill. They know that as soon as boredom sets in with one set of rules, one can change the rules in order to sustain focused attention and insure that learning occurs. Nate and Eric created a relatively simple but challenging game that had clear (and ever changing) rules. The game provided immediate feedback--another requirement in a good game. They could count the skips and know, within seconds that each throw met or failed to meet the goal set. The game they created was an end in itself--like a little circle that excluded everything around them and all thought outside the thought required to compete. The game provided a sense of increasing control, almost paradoxically, in such a vast and wild environment. This illusion of control is one of the most powerful reasons to play. This kind of experience is what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes as an optimal experience . Nate and Eric, lifelong friends with a lot of playing experience together, knew exactly how to create and maintain an optimal experience game.

It was not long before the little boys just down the beach began to throw rocks too but they did not know how to organize the game that they were emulating. They were learning by watching and trying but they had not yet learned to coordinate a structured game that could sustain attention in the same way the big boys did. Their less organized game, without clear rules and without real feedback regarding how well they were doing, did not entertain them very long. They could and did sustain attention to the rocks and the water but they had no ability to create a game that they could play together. What they needed (and what children with autism need) was to provide a framework and structure. If someone had organized the game with saying something like: This is a black rock only competition. You both need to pick a black rock that is the same size. Then, stand right beside each other and lets see how far you can throw it. They were too little, I think to successfully skip a rock but learning to throw would have provided plenty of challenge.

There are a number of other possibilities for creating challenge and learning. In the highly patriotic tin pail you see in the photo, they might have collected rocks of different sizes, shapes, colors and tried throwing these underhand, overhand, just to the waters edge, a little bit further, a bit further yet. They could have tried for bigger and smaller splashes. They could have tried throwing several small pebbles at a time and so on. Someone would have needed to show these boys how to coordinate their actions with rocks and throwing, and how to change the goal often enough to hold boredom at bay. A game with clear, concrete rules would have kept them playing together longer and would have helped them enjoy the social pleasure of joint activity. I want to mention, although it is not entirely related, that playing in this way with a more able player would have insured that a younger player would learn new vocabulary and new concepts.

Not knowing how to create a structured game, these boys and other small children on the beach were still quite able to enjoy playing on the beach. They just enjoyed the beach as a sensory experience or perhaps a loose kind of constructive play more than a social experience. They rearranged rocks in and out of the water but not together. They piled and moved and dropped rocks. They handled and gathered and changed the color of the rocks by dipping them in water. A little girl down the beach still further was particularly focused in her play and spent a long and happy time just looking and moving little pebbles for with some purpose that was known only to herself. This is a lovely kind of play and a visit to the beach can include either or both of these kinds of play but if you want to use a bit of your recreational time, to help your child learn the social skill of playing with another person, show your child how to set up simple rules for a game that builds physical skills, provides clear and immediate feedback, and can be made gradually more complex or changed so that it does not become boring. Provide language for what your child is doing or trying to do. Organize your child with another into a game that allows them both to play together.

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