autism community trip playground

Share for your fellow special educators!

Part of my job is to take each of my four special education classes into the community each week.  That’s over 1000 trips over these last 5 years.  This year, I had someone criticize the fact that we go to the playground.  “I don’t believe in going to the playground.  I’d rather do something outside to work on their goals than just play.  That’s just my personal opinion.”  I was so caught off guard I didn’t have the response I wish I did.  And since this has been bothering me, here it is.

Autism Community Trips to the Playground

Dear Billy*,

Despite the fact that you are applying for a job here, you clearly do not understand the population you tell me you “are so passionate about.”  At this school, we serve students with severe autism.  A core deficit in autism is impaired play and leisure skills.  And in my students, these skills are severely lacking.  So when I say we go to the playground on community because it’s something we really need to work on, you should smile and say “Yes, absolutely.  I can see how that is valuable for both the students and families.”

You tell me you don’t think it’s valuable.  Well it’s valuable to one mom who said she wants to take both of her daughters to the playground but can’t because it’s WWIII when it is time to go.  If we can get her transitioning to a less disastrous spectacle, she’s just one of the girls there.  She can blend in with the other kids. That’s not valuable?

You tell me you’d rather work on something more functional than “just playing.”  Well, my kids are actually pretty bad at playing.  Have you ever heard the saying “work is play and play is work” in regards to children with autism?  My kids are incredibly hard workers.  You want to know where they break down?  During choice time.  When they are asked to entertain themselves.  When they need to wait for more than 10 seconds.  “JUST playing” doesn’t exist for them.

Here’s a smattering of the functional goals we’re working on while you think we’re “JUST playing”:

  • Taking turns
  • Waiting
  • Using equipment safely (not eating mulch)
  • Using equipment appropriately (not stimming by rolling rocks down the slide)
  • Not running into the street
  • Not removing shoes or clothing
  • Transitioning back to the bus when the trip is over
  • Wearing a seatbelt
  • Communication (requesting pushes on the swing)
  • Gross motor skills (climbing equipment, stairs, going from standing to seated on the slide)
  • More social skills than I can count

Can we achieve these in other settings as you suggest?  Yeah, maybe.  But I can assure you it won’t be as reinforcing or motivating as being at the playground.

Here’s some of the prep that staff and I do before community trips to “JUST play”:

  • Research the playground for safety concerns, surface type, fencing, parking, distance from school, bathrooms etc.
  • Write a story with pictures so students know where we are going, what is expected of them, what they should expect, rules and their feelings about it
  • Create visual schedules for overall trip
  • Do a task analysis and create visual task strips for specific equipment
  • Secure student specific behavior supports – token boards, behavior mats, communication systems, staff safety equipment (arm guards, bite jackets), safety harnesses for bus, timers, transition items
  • Create an exit or worst-case scenario strategy for each student

Beyond all that functional stuff, kids need to play.  Play is an excellent medium for learning.  “Play is the highest expression of human development in childhood, for it alone is the free expression of what is in a child’s soul.”  Playing in and of itself is enough reason to do it and I won’t be apologizing.

So next time you see us at the playground on community, I hope you see all the learning we’re doing while we’re “JUST playing.”

P.S.  I found 13,000 search results for autism and playground from Google Scholar.  Perhaps you can let those researchers know not to bother because the kids are “just playing.”

*Name has NOT been changed to protect the uninformed.

Special Education Community Trips to the Playground

Community trips to the playground and why it’s ok

4 thoughts on “Community trips to the playground and why it’s ok

  • September 8, 2016 at 1:56 pm

    Thank you!!! (mother of twins on the spectrum who is currently standing and clapping showing approval for this article).

    • September 11, 2016 at 8:05 pm

      Thank you Holly! I have two degrees in Leisure Studies – I can shout from the rooftops the importance of play! It’s never “just playing”! 🙂

  • October 14, 2016 at 7:37 pm

    I cannot stand up and applaud any louder! There is a culture at my school that our recess is a time for adults to sit back and casually monitor our students while they engage in whatever they want. I see it all on the playground, one shoe off, throwing mulch, eating dirt, hitting, stimming, running in circles! It drives me bananas! I dream of the day I can implement structured play stations to increase the interactions between students and decrease off-task, aggressive, inappropriate and self-stimulatory behavior. For now, I’m just glad I’m not alone!

    Part of the reason is that recess is at the end of the day and teachers are tired and need a break. The reality is, though, by front-loading the teaching at the beginning of the year, recess would run a lot smoother until summer comes back around.

    • November 15, 2016 at 1:51 pm

      Hi Christina! I’m not sure why but my response to you did not post. So here I am again a month later!

      I totally agree with you! Recess at our school is when all of our paras get their lunch (staggered but still pretty heavy at this time). An ‘outsider’ would think our kids need a break from the constant structure in their day, but frankly that’s not the case! The structure is what helps them understand their surroundings and expectations. We’ve done some structured recess for certain kids who wouldn’t be able to participate otherwise but it really should be implemented across all students! I hope you get a chance to implement some structured play someday. I know it’s so hard and you have to prioritize your teaching!

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