Dr Gina Gomez de la Cuesta on building skills and learning through play.

Children’s brains are designed to absorb information about their world through playful experiences, and learning through play is fundamental for children’s positive development. Research indicates that playful experiences are essential for a child’s social and emotional development and the stimulation and learning that comes from play is essential in developing language, social and cognitive skills. A fundamental aspect of play is that it enables children to have agency over their own learning journey. 

Playful experiences are socially interactive, and we know that high quality interactions with their peers and adults play an important role in how children benefit from learning through play. Positive, playful experiences from the earliest stage in childhood, enable children to explore, create, interact and discover new things about people and the world around them. Zosh et al., (2018) propose a spectrum of play, ranging from free play to adult-directed instruction. Evidence suggests that a middle ground of guided play is the best way to support children’s learning. Guided play combines playful exploration with scaffolded discovery, to maximise engagement and learning. Adults play a critical role in facilitating and scaffolding learning, and skilful facilitators spot opportunities to integrate learning goals in playful ways, where children are actively engaged and enjoying themselves in a meaningful activity. 

Children have different natural ways of communicating, socialising, and experiencing the world. Unfortunately, due to a lack of societal understanding and acceptance of autism and neurodivergence, we know that children can face high levels of exclusion and isolation. Missing out on opportunities to play can impact a child’s wellbeing, communication skills and social development. This was clearly seen during the recent pandemic. 

Meaningful connections play an important role in supporting children’s mental health and wellbeing. With nearly 78% of autistic children also experiencing a mental health condition such as anxiety or depression, it has never been more important to actively support autistic children with their social, emotional, and communication development, in a way that respects their natural styles of learning and communication, and builds on the skills that they already possess. Creating a safe and accepting space where neurodivergent children can meet others and play together around a shared interest, can help them to grow in confidence, develop a sense of belonging and have more opportunities to form meaningful friendships.

Bricks can be a powerful tool for supporting learning through play for some autistic and neurodivergent children. Not only are bricks familiar, which can help to reduce anxiety, but the predictable, systematic construction can be motivating for children. Completing a model gives a sense of accomplishment and pride from creation and bricks are also a hugely popular toy and provide a common interest for children to share together. Most importantly, many children enjoy playing with them. 

In Brick Clubs, children can collaboratively build models using instructions, or design their own models, depending on their preference. They are encouraged to relax and be themselves, facilitating the development of relationships with others through the shared task of creation. During the building process, friendships are formed, and often continued outside of the club as children form meaningful connections through shared experiences and having fun together. Harnessing a shared interest in the bricks enables children to embrace a ‘shared identity’, helping them to build friendships with other young people who share their passions and feel a sense of belonging. 

Through play, children share, negotiate and resolve conflicts, and they develop their self-advocacy skills. In one programme, participants work together on team-based activities, taking turns to play roles such as the supplier of materials, until the model is built. During each session, the children decide what models to make, who plays which role, and when to take turns. During freestyle building, pairs or small teams design and create their own models together while more advanced builders can create animations or work on programming activities. 

During each activity, playful facilitation is used so that children have agency, solve problems and have fun building together. Many opportunities to use language arise in the sessions. Whether a brick is missing during the group building process, or a different colour is chosen, or there is a discussion about the best way to proceed with a build, learning through collaborative model building supports speech and language through the expansion of vocabulary and communication skills.

Gina Gomez de la Cuesta
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Gina Gomez de la Cuesta is a Clinical Psychologist and Founder of Play Included.

Website: https://playincluded.com
Twitter: @playincluded
LinkedIn: @play-included


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