Sunday, November 16, 2008

Serious Play

Tonight, I watched a TED Video from a conference called Serious Play where a designer, Tim Brown talked about how his design firm used play to enhance creativity in design projects. While I often read about and study the work of others who do what I do, namely teach young children who have autism, I also find it useful to hear or read about the work of other who do parts of what I do for altogether different purposes. Mr. Brown provided many ideas that I found useful. Here are two ideas from the talk:

Thinking with our hands

Mr. Brown said that first-grade kids spend up to 50% of their play time in constructive play, which is play where they are building or creating with materials. He talked about how we tend to remove the creative materials (like clay and crayons) from the learning and working environments as people get older. I do this. I tend to try to move kids out of constructive play and into pretend play (role play) as they get older because pretend play is more closely associated with language development in all the literature that I read. But many children with autism love constructive play and are great artists or builders. It would be possible for me to teach many of the same language and social interaction skills using constructive play.

Some children with autism are creative with constructive play and some are not. Some children build or make the same thing over and over like the year my daughter drew the same rainbow over a tulip picture ten times a day for, I don't know, I think at least a year. I just bought cheaper paper after a while but if I had wanted to use this as a teachable experience, I could have helped her learn to be more creative. Helping a child explore new ideas and become more open to change might be one important constructive play goal for a child who is not already creative.

It was because Mr. Brown called it thinking with our hands that I found myself thinking about constructive play a little differently. Constructive play is a form of thinking. I knew this from my own experience because I think with my hands while gardening and cooking. I notice that both of these activities are emotionally regulating for me. I feel a yoga like calm while gardening and sometimes while cooking--although social pressure can interrupt that calm creative feeling. Mr. Brown discussed the issue of trusting relationships when he talked about the most creative workplace being one where you work with your best friends. I notice that if I do the cooking with friends (instead of for friends), the creativity is magnified and the social pressure is gone and the social interaction is wonderful. There is no reason why this kind of meaningful, enjoyable social interaction could not be created around constructive play for children with autism.

The Importance of Trust

I was struck by the way that Mr. Brown highlighted the importance of trust in his discussion of creative play. I choose the framework of play over drill work to teach communication and language for many reasons but Mr. Brown's talk reminded me that one advantage of play is that playful interaction is more apt to create trusting relationships in which the people who play together will take risks and try new things and learn. This is true for the adults and children. I know this is important but his talk got me to thinking about how hard it is to accomplish.

In the model of therapy that I use, which if very parent involved--building trust is a major issue. It is hard enough to do with a child who has autism but I can usually manage it because I adhere to a set of "rules" that I have learned over the years in the hard knocks school of terrible therapy sessions. I have learned how to be playful but constrained in some ways so that the child with autism does not become confused, frustrated, anxious, or resistant. The point though, in my sessions, is that I aim to teach parents these "rules of play" at the same time as the session with a child is going on. From the parents perspective, learning while doing does not always feel playful. The parent becomes self-conscious (an issue demonstrated in Mr. Brown's talk very clearly) because they feel judged when I explicitly tell them play rules like Use less language. Talk about what your child is looking at. Don't ask performance questions. Let your child direct some of the play. And so on. All these "rules" are inhibiting for parents. Trying hard to follow the rules, parents may become less playful rather than more. This is totally understandable but frustrating for me because I can't always think of how to work around this. I want parents to trust me to see them with positive regard because I do, but how to convey this while telling them to behave differently with their child is not always clear to me.

There are things that seem to help parents relax and learn and enjoy themselves while learning. I just need to identify them better in my own mind. For example, strangely enough, some of my best sessions (on the scale of fun, relaxed, playful and learning rich for both parents and child) are sessions where the whole family is there and sometimes even the dog takes part. Perhaps learning the autism "play rules" in a family group is less intimidating. No one feels so much on the spot. It feels like a three ring circus to me but there is more shared laughter, more silliness and the family members often start to tell each other the "rules" so I don't have to do it so often. I don't know all the answers to the question of how to create a relaxed, playful but ultimately effective learning environment for parents and kids alike but it is interesting to think about this in this way.

Here is a nice link from Mr. Brown's company that may inspire more play ideas in your family:

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