Monday, July 4, 2011

Oona Hanawalt: Autism Play Project

At John Muir Elementary School, located in San Francisco’s low-income Western Addition neighborhood,  students from the general education and autism-specific class currently play on a bare patch of asphalt surrounded by chain-link fence and peeling paint.  We desperately need a play inclusive play space.  Our proposal has been accepted for the Pepsi Refresh Project, and is posted for public voting between July 1-31.  You can vote once a day, every day.  If we're in the top 15 vote recipients, the students in this classroom will get an inclusive playground!

*  Vote once a day, every day, here: or via text message 107391 to Pepsi (73774).

Imagine this: Jack, a sweet, chubby-cheeked pre-schooler in the autism-specific classroom, desperately wants to play with Simon, a general education peer. Simon asks, “Jack, do you want to play with me?”  Jack is unable to respond and echoes back, “Jack, do you want to play with me?”  His puzzled classmate walks away. As you can see, Jack’s autism hampers his social skills and he is unable to engage in the unstructured play that takes place on the empty playground. 

Every day, he walks the perimeter of the playground for the entirety of recess, flapping his hands in front of his eyes while his general education peers run and play meaningfully with each other.  Jack’s language and play deficits increase his isolation, exacerbating his environment of deprivation, and shutting out the myriad learning opportunities that his general education peers access. Jack needs a structured play environment.

After engaging in this solitary behavior day in and day out, Jack has lost the equivalent of 7.5 (180 hours) days of social interaction by the end of the school year. This social interaction is invaluable to Jack’s development. Research shows that children engage in play activities to practice valuable life skills such as conflict resolution, negotiation, and taking the perspective of others.  For Jack, even the paucity of opportunity to use language is devastating.  As Jack continues to pace the playground perimeter, hand-flapping in his own world, the window for neurological development is rapidly shutting, and those lost 7.5 days will never be regained. Without opportunities for engaged play, Jack will lose even more precious time.

A play space is something most schools, parents, and students take for granted, but Jack and his classmates don’t have one.  An inclusive play space will drastically change the outcome for students like Jack.  It gives them a place to play with their typically-developing peers, practicing social skills and gross motor skills.  A play space at John Muir Elementary School would even the playing field for the students, and give them opportunities to engage in joyous play-something every child deserves!

You can follow our quest and read more at our website:  Thank you so much for your support!

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