The Importance of Play

This morning as I was lying on the floor wrestling with my dog for her tennis ball–complete with fake growling on my part and some real growling on her part–I realized how important play is in my life.

Still. At the age of 45.

Since childhood, I’ve enjoyed playing board games and card games, solving puzzles and competing at (some) sports. Basically if there’s a game and I can potentially win at it, or at least enjoy trying, I’m there. But I’m also a huge fan of spontaneous, unstructured, completely pointless play.

Play in its purest form.

Play that arises in the moment and leads to unexpected, unbridled fun.

Which is probably why the assertion that autistic children don’t play “right” is so offensive to me. Why have autism researchers and therapists and clinicians forgotten the meaning of play? Worse, why are autistic kids so often described as not understanding how to play?

In reality, there is no wrong way to play. According to that bastion of knowledge known as Wikipedia, play is “a range of voluntary, intrinsically motivated activities normally associated with recreational pleasure and enjoyment.”  If a child is engaging in an intrinsically motivated activity and they’re enjoying it, then they’re doing it right!

The activity could be socially-focused, like having a tea party or goal-focused like disassembling a toaster. It could be something that appears to be completely pointless like watching a bug crawl on a stick or running in circles around the perimeter of the playground or studying the way the wind blows leaves around as they fall from a tree.


Educational Play

But, the experts say, play should be educational–it should promote cognitive, social and physical development.

Kids are little sponges, absorbing knowledge every moment of the day. Filling their growing brains with new and important skills, many learned through play. But does play always have to promote a child’s development? Of course not. Much of the play that typical kids engage in is pointless fun.

But those poor autistic kids, the experts intone somberly, with their delayed development and clueless approach to socializing–they need to suck up every possible ounce of learning from every waking moment.

Thanks to this attitude–to the experts who have forgotten not only what play is supposed to be but what it’s like to be a child–autistic kids get social skills training disguised as play and developmental activities disguised as play and behavioral interventions disguised as play and occupational therapy disguised as play . . .

Except that these things aren’t play at all, because they’re not intrinsically motivated. The child is not directing the activity. The child is not choosing how to fulfill their needs or create enjoyable recreational activities. The child isn’t exploring the world around them in a way that suits them. They’re not discovering their passions and likes and dislikes.

They’re being led by an adult in a structured activity that has the goal of producing desired outcomes for which the child will receive extrinsic rewards. That’s the opposite of play. In fact, that’s the dictionary definition of work.

It’s commendable that clinicians and therapists want therapy to be fun for kids, but interventions disguised as play are a poor–if not a dangerous–substitute for actual play. Autistic kids have the same rights to a childhood as other children. Therapies and supplemental educational activities should be done in addition to playtime, not in place of it.


More Than One Way to Play

Somewhere along the line we’ve taken the notion that play is a valuable educational activity and twisted it to mean that one specific type of play is valuable and all play–especially all play engaged in by developmentally disabled children–must be educational.

This is bit like saying “doctors are valuable to society therefore all adults should be doctors.”  If that were the case, we would all quickly starve and/or freeze to death because we would be homeless, hungry, and naked, among other things.

Society needs all kinds of people. It needs the kids who play house and school and tea party. And it needs the kids who take apart their toys or categorize their toys or couldn’t care less about conventional toys. It needs the kids who enjoy staring at clouds and the kids who would rather figure out the iPad by themselves than ask a parent and the kids who are content to spend their recess period digging in the dirt with a stick.

Notice that I didn’t say we need the kids who play in social ways but we also need the kids who play in other ways. I said and. This is an intentional word choice. The kids who play in goal-oriented, atypical or apparently pointless ways are equally valuable members of society. They are not the “but also” group, tacked on to the end of the sentence like second class citizens.

I was the kid who spent hours organizing her toys. I was the kid who wandered aimlessly in the woods. I was the kid playing board games alone in her room. By all accounts, I spent my entire childhood playing “wrong.” The funny thing is, nobody told me. My parents encouraged my interests, no matter how odd they were for my age. I learned to follow my passions and I learned to approach the world with curiosity.

That’s true to this day and that’s far more important to me than whether I make small talk properly. I wouldn’t trade my intrinsic motivation, my passion for self-directed learning or my love of discovery for all the social skills in the world. As a child, I intrinsically knew what I needed to learn; through play I built up the skills that have seen me through adulthood.

Because autistic children perceive the world differently, they need to learn different things through play than typical children do. All those hours I spent organizing my stamps and coins and baseball cards and Barbie clothes taught me about pattern recognition and rules–two things that I rely heavily on to navigate the world. Time spent alone in the woods taught me that quiet solitude is essential to surviving in a world that is unnaturally noisy to my senses. Hours of board games played against myself taught me about options and strategies and roleplaying and the countless ways a situation can be approached and still turn out okay.

We are born with an incredibly strong intrinsic motivation for exploring and adapting to the world around us. Forcing an autistic child to play in a certain way not only takes aways their intrinsic drive for exploration, it prevents them from discovering their strengths and finding ways to cope with the complex and often confusing world around them.


93 thoughts on “The Importance of Play”

  1. Thank you for this play manifesto – so clear, concise, and eloquent. I’m going to print it out to put in my “best resources and reminders” binder. I’m quite certain it will be helpful in my work with kids and their families, but it’s also helpful to me personally. It’s amazing how much one’s understanding of a single word-concept can open or close the world, and how valuable it is to consider one’s own definitions.

    1. 🙂 I’m always honored when someone saves a piece to come back to later. I have a collections of things printed out and stuffed in books or binders so that I can look back at them when I need a reminder.

  2. Reblogged this on Opposite Ends of the Spectrum and commented:
    Love this! I’m an adult and can barely handle a 40 hr work week without an outlet or a break to do whatever I want. But autistic 2,3,4 yr olds often have this much work a week or even more! Sometimes even are shamed or discouraged from doing the things they need or want to do to unwind when they get those tiny slivers of free time because it isn’t “normal” or “appropriate”. I encourage you to put yourself in your child’s shoes…preschoolers…or anyone for that matter should not be pulling 80 hr weeks…for any reason.

    1. Yes! 40 hours of therapy a week has become a mantra in some parts of the autism community and that’s often on top of regular school days for “older” kids. No one should be subjected to that, let alone 5-year-olds.

      1. E has a decent amt…but his day is preschool 9ish-3ish at which he gets his 7-8 weekly hrs of therapy…home time is free time to do pretty much anything he wants or needs to do. Once he starts kindergarten imagine hrs will drop…only supplement I’ll consider is outpatient w his current SLP because she is wonderful and really works with him on total communication not just verbal speech…and communication is important to a more peaceful and happy E.

        1. Having therapy in the context of preschool is a good solution, actually. I’ve heard parents talk about kids getting multiple hours of therapy a day after school (in which they are presumably also getting supplementary education). Home time as free time is a good policy!

          1. Yeah so have i…I’m constantly having to check myself and say am i expecting more out of my 4yo than I would myself as an adult without additional issues? But yes i see it all the time…desparation and misdirection lead to people doing things that are completely irrational. I do eventually want to start about 30 min of “school” at home for two reasons…1 to see if homeschool is viable for either of us should the need arise, and 2 so I can fiddle w everything and in a year walk into his kindergarten IEP and say ok…look…he can do these tasks through this alternate method…bc the kid is on level or above academically…i want him to learn at school not get stuck on ABCs bc he cant “test” properly… but he’s going to need alternate methods of answering etc bc hes completely non speaking. I want to go in there armed with exactly how to make that possible. Really hate intruding on home time but I think if kept fairly short then might work.

            1. This sounds like a great plan. I like that you aren’t planning on the school to figure out what he can do and how he learns best and are going to give them a baseline to start from.

      2. Oh my God, 40 hours of therapy? I am almost going insane with 40 hours of work (breaks included) a week! I had no idea there werde parts of any autism community going to those extremes. Frankly I find it to be horrifying. Three-year-olds should spend their time playing happily in the woods, the garden, playgrounds. And yes if there is a form of therapy that will help them in a moderate way – okay. Even one hor of therapy a week can be hard work, even for an adult. But 40 hours? For a small child? Is there no place for children and specifically autistic children to be happy, have a good laugh and some kind of freedom?

        1. Exactly. In fact, Temple Grandin is a huge advocate of the “40 hours a week” theory and includes it in nearly every speech she gives so it’s all over Youtube, etc. It’s also the number that a lot of ABA therapists will put forward as recommended/necessary and one that crops up in early intervention advice aimed at parents of newly diagnosed kids.

          I’m definitely not anti-therapy but therapy needs to be one part of a kid’s life, not a full-time job.

          1. Even disregarding any function those absurd amounts of therapy might have, Parents are paying horrid amounts of money for something that has the potential to scar their child for life.
            Sometimes I don’t like the fact that I am living far away from the next forest without a car and with poor public transportation (especially since today is a public holiday). Otherwise I would have been on my way to the forest by now.
            (Granted my recent knee-surgery would have made this difficult anyway)

            1. The times when I’ve been stuck living in cities have made me realize how much walks in the woods contribute to my sanity. I hope you’re able to get to the forest soon!

  3. Thank you for reminding me that I used to wander the woods alone as a child. Lately, I’ve felt starved for nature and was wondering what was “wrong” with me. Nothing is wrong. I am just hungry for a certain kind f play I haven’t gotten enough of lately.

    1. Yes! I still need regular wandering time. My husband says it’s like “going to church” for me. I guess he means it has spiritual as well as more practical benefits.

        1. Woods, mountain tops, deserted beaches… all are restful, restorative, invigorating. They help me regain some perspective and inner peace. If I go for too long without a dose of wilderness, I start to lose the plot 🙂

  4. You sum it up so well–that play is about teaching *ourselves* how to survive in the world, and each of our selves is different. What I need to survive well in the world is not what someone else might need.

    I definitely categorized as a kid. I would make lists of everything I owned and lists of everything I got at each birthday or Christmas, and got great satisfaction out of re-alphabetizing my books now and then. The funny thing was that it could be quite stressful (thus, I’m sure, why I got the label OCD), mostly if I couldn’t find everything that was on a previous list. I would play with other kids, but usually (textbook-ly) if I could be in charge, and we would play at being things like cats, not cooks or teachers or what-have-you. And I’ve always loved just collecting flowers or chasing lizards at recess (and whatever passes for recess in adulthood). Whenever anyone would join me in doing that, I took it as a great gift, and still do. And, as an adult, I still want to do the ‘kid’ types of play that are based on sensation and physical exertion, like climbing statues, swinging on swings, and playing in fountains. I’ve learned not to because, I tell you what, you run through an outdoors fountain as an adult, and folks grab their children away and visibly decide you’re an unpredictable predator, even if you’re a woman. Which, I can’t really blame them. An adult playing in a space most adults’ consider a children’s space *is* a threat, especially an unknown adult, because it’s not a predictable behavior and people want to see other adults behaving predictably, especially around vulnerable people like children. It’s personal sensation-seeking winning out over social group participation, and it frustrates me to want to engage in that sort of play, since it ostracizes me and makes me feel immature. I already feel enough like a child-adult most of the time, regardless.

    I honestly would love to play well with others, but my brain seems to recognize only ‘control’ or ‘total passivity’ when it comes to play. Either one gets me into trouble. Control alienates others and crushes my sense of connection to those I play/engage with, and passivity endangers me, since I’ll go along with whatever to stay part of a group and eventually wear out and revert to wanting control. There has to be a way to learn the ‘middle way.’

    1. Same. My playing with other kids often ended in shouting matches if I couldn’t be the teacher or mom or whatever role got to dictate how the scenario went and like you I found the other extreme pretty quickly, learning to be the kid who just went along with the other person’s dictates if I couldn’t be totally in charge. How strange that is though, to have only two extreme modes of interacting and to being okay with either of them. I still default to passivity at times today and try to be vigilant because it doesn’t seem to be helpful in the context of long-term adult relationships.

      What you say about being careful about how we play as adults is so true. On the occasions I’ve gotten “caught” by strangers goofing around with my dog, making up silly voices and playing childish games or doing other things that aren’t very adultish, I’ve always felt embarrassed. :-/

      1. I’ve had the same experience with passivity and adult relationships. After a while, passivity seems to result in resentment and confusion on both sides.

        The acting adult thing is tricky. I can see the line in others–I know when someone looks like they’re ‘acting like an adult’ but playing or goofing off and when they suddenly look like they’re ‘immature’ or have poor control. Learning to perceive and maintain that line in myself is difficult. I find it leaves me feeling like passivity is the ‘safer’ option in social interaction, because if I act I run the risk of embarrassing myself and others, or creating conflict by trying to take control. And if that happens I feel ‘bad,’ like I have to resort to passivity to avoid doing harm. I’ve taught myself over time that I am something only just short of dangerous when I try to think and act on my own impulses around others, that I am prone to harm. There has to be some way around that. I’m working on finding it.

        1. “I find it leaves me feeling like passivity is the ‘safer’ option in social interaction, because if I act I run the risk of embarrassing myself and others, or creating conflict by trying to take control.”

          Yes! It always feels safer to not act or express wishes/wants/opinions but then people seem to get frustrated by this so it can become a no win situation. I’ve found it helps to have the other person actively encourage or support me in “being myself” but that can be a hard point to get to because of the level of trust and understanding it requires. *sigh*

          1. Yes, that level of trust and understanding would be wonderful. The trick with that is that I usually pretend hardest (get most passive) around people I trust most because boy, do I not want them to leave me and I don’t want to hurt them. As I get older, I find my biggest challenge in life is going to be accepting myself and learning enough about myself to present me as I am, as someone who visits both extremes occasionally but never rests permanently on either, the moment I meet someone, not *after* I’ve pretended at them for a long while. Down the road of pretending lies broken trust, not better trust. I’ve got to learn to show people the whole frog, not just the pretty green color *or* the warts 😉

  5. I agree so much about the importance of play just for play’s sake! The idea that any play is “wrong” makes no sense to me.

    I do want to add a little something about my experience with “play therapy” as a speech pathologist (in-training) back when that was the thing that I did. It was the policy of the pediatric clinic that as much therapy (the clinic offered SLP, PT, and OT) as possible (which meant, for my wonderful supervisor, ALL therapy) should be child-driven play therapy. Of course there have to be limitations, because if they are there for half an hour once or twice a week, they are there for 30 minutes of professional assistance and education. But the only limits that were necessarily there were the limits of the clinic itself. There were a billion toys and books and art supplies, as well as plenty of random office supplies or household objects that definitely weren’t intended for play, but were certainly used for it if I kid decided that was where they wanted to go that day. I know that a lot of therapists did find ways to include structure, making it not completely child-driven, and I admit my supervisor and I did that a bit with those of our patients who were able to protest. That is to say, if the child had speech delays but not language delays and had no problem at all letting us know when they were unhappy, we would work in structured stuff being sure that the kid knew we could change activities or take breaks or whatever. With the kids who couldn’t express their needs articulately, or found it difficult, or maybe just didn’t want to…we let them take complete control. The sessions became about showing that adults could respond to them and engage with them on their level, and showing them that the ways they had already developed to communicate (whether typical speech or standardized sign or AAC or drawing or as unconventional as you can imagine) were perfectly fine, and that it was possible for them to be heard and cared about, and that expressing themselves in their own way could get them what they wanted more easily than waiting for us to guess. That’s still not pure play, and I’m not claiming it is. But it’s also a 30-minute appointment with a health professional, one that is designed to start and stop at particular times so that the child can spend his/her other waking hours straight up *playing*.

    tl;dr Play therapy is not pure play, and pure play is definitely super important and cannot be done “wrong.” Play therapy can, however, be a whole lot closer to pure play than you might imagine, and when executed well, can be primarily (though usually not entirely) spontaneous and child-driven.

    1. I’m all for making therapy fun, especially in the way that you’re describing here. I think the slippery slope is when parents or therapists try to every single thing in a kid’s life into an educational moment. And parents of typical kids do this too. I was walking down the street in town last weekend and a toddler was all excited over some flowers, touching them and pointing them out to his mom. And the first thing the mom said was “and what color are the flowers?” turning the kid’s excitement about the flowers into an exercise in color naming. Grrr. Like, can’t we just enjoy looking at the flowers and touching them and admiring them for 30 seconds? Gah.

      With autistic kids, one of the first things a lot of parents hear is “40 hours a week of therapy!” (who even picked that number out of a hat?) and then the pressure is on to wring as much educational-ness out of every minute of the week to get in that ridiculous number of our hours of intervention.

      And of course there’s the whole “look how wrong this kid is playing” that we saw in the Kennedy Krieger and other videos. So one of the goals of therapy in worst case (but all too common) scenarios is “teach the kid to play right.” But, of course, you know all this. 🙂

      And now I’m sad that awesome people like you who get it aren’t the norm when it comes to working with autistic kids.

      1. I see it a lot in the research I’m doing now too, and like you said, it’s parents of autistic kids and neurotypical kids alike. An example that’s been driving me crazy lately is a parent who uses her young daughter’s new interest in jigsaw puzzles to make sure she counts and names and spells absolutely everything in the picture. Can’t it be enough that the girl loves to do puzzles??? I mean, she’s not even doing them “wrong” (snark quotes)!

  6. I’m very much enjoying your blog. I just ran across your blog a few days ago, and find time every day to read more. Your gift of words blesses me and I’m so thankful for your efforts. My son was diagnosed ADD, generalized anxiety disorder, and high functioning autistic at nine years old less than six months ago. We had no idea. All we knew, was that my husband and I were watching my boy lose his joy for life. In the first 10 minutes of the nearly 4 hour evaluation, the therapist mentioned autism. Our goals for our son remain the same: We want him to be joyful. I’m not looking for a “cookie cutter” style of kid, I just hope to have a happy kid. While he meets all criteria for autism, his greatest difference is social skills. Your blog takes away some of the fear (What if he has no friends? What if he never marries? What if he never understands empathy for others. Or as this post describes, what if he plays differently? What if…). Your blog helps me to embrace the wonderful. smart, kind, loving boy that I have and respect and appreciate who is rather than trying to make him fit into that “cookie cutter” style kid that looks like everyone elses. And while my husband is not “officially” diagnosed, I know without a doubt that he too is high functioning autistic. We both poured ourselves over your marriage series. It gives so many answers to so much confusion. Without a doubt, you have helped our family is many, many ways. Thank you for being brave, for sharing of yourself, and for being part of our journey. You are a blessing.

    1. Thank you – your words here made me so happy. It’s great that you are trying to understand your son and “meet him where he is” as he grows older. There is so much doom and gloom out there–it’s not surprising that so many parents are gripped by fear after their child is diagnosed. And yet look at your husband – he’s married and has a family and can be a great role model for you son as he grows up.

      My biggest difference is probably in the social area too, but I’ve managed okay thanks to parents who encouraged my strengths and let me “do my thing” as a kid. As an adult, I’m noticeably different but people often end up seeing that as a good thing and those who don’t . . . well, we can’t please everyone, right?

      I hope your son is able to find ways to minimize his anxiety and enjoy being himself. That can take time and effort, but at 9 years old, he still has a lot of growing up to do and he’s lucky to have parents who will support him in that.

    2. Jen, you say (in the many wise things you say about your son): “What if he never understands empathy for others”.
      I work in a school whose attending students present autistically. My judgement is that our students do empathy differently. Their ways of doing empathy, yielding autistic rather than social outcomes. That is these ways of doing empathy allow for others as if they too were autistic, like the empathiser.
      If your way of doing empathy, because autistic, has seen you poorly received and responded to by (some) others (because you are not allowing the social they need), and that over a lengthy development, then it is not surprising if you become careful about doing empathy in any form.
      I would imagine that your son is learning about the empathising you and your husband do with him. That an empathising refined in its approach to the autistic.

  7. Yea! I took Early Childhood Development years ago and play was emphasized…especially unstructured art and imaginative play so I applied that to my kiddos and dont regret it for a second. Even in homeschooling – play makes up 2/3rds of their day…the other 1/3 is chores and paperwork but they learn more naturally in their play…of course I switch it up at times and they play through baking, gardening ect…but it’s all a form of delight mostly.
    I only believe in therapy for cognitive stuff like anxiety and dealing with sensory overload and getting to know yourself…but I feel that therapy is a supplement for living and it should NEVER replace play in all it’s forms.
    There is a book called Play- how it shapes the brain, delights the imagination and invigorates the Soul. It’s an excellent source for any adult spectrum or not.
    I am autistic and I have a wild imagination. So do my children. We love to play the way we play…with our music, our technology, our lego, our systems but we also have always done role play for fun ( contrary to autistic paraphernalia that says we don.t) My kids love to dress up and I did too when I was younger. They do this to figure out different societal roles. They have RICH imaginations. I WAS bossy in play as a child but you know…most people did not mind me taking the lead as they still had fun…because I needed that control. Luckily I learned how to exert that control while allowing others to have a voice and have fun. I think my kiddos are learning that too.

    1. Thank you for the book rec. I’ll check it out. Play is so important to me and I miss those days of having a kid around the house to play with. When my daughter visits, we enjoy playing video games and board games but now that she’s grown up, I don’t have that built-in socially acceptable “excuse” for playing the sandbox or running around like a goofball.

      I was a bossy kid too and it’s taken me way too long as an adult to relinquish some of that control in my daily life. But I’ve made a huge progress and I’m proud of that–there’s much more of a balance now.

    2. My supervisor (a K-5 school social worker) at this past year’s internship owns that book, so it’s been on my list, but you just bumped it up! For those who despair of finding positive services for their kids, take heart – the rise of things like outdoor ed and adventure therapy are bringing a more dynamic perspective to therapy and the way it can work. I admit that I’m so verbal, it can get in the way of pure play – but I’m aware and working on that. I have seen the value of nondirective play firsthand. I’ve also seen the value in “contracting for work” even with little kids – coming to an agreement about what the purpose is of getting together and working together in agreeable ways toward that purpose. (Usually time is left for pure play even if “work” needs to be done.) That kind of empowerment of kids within the realm of “the work” is powerful, too.

  8. I love this so much. I’ve been struggling with finding “things” my asd 4 year old wants to play with. Toys, games, activities. But in reality he plays all the time. With books, cards, lego men, etc… maybe this is why I am also having such a problem with ABA in our life. It’s too structured for his needs and I’ve come to think that I need a better way, NOT him.

    1. Kids are really good at finding playthings, left to their own devices. 🙂

      It’s okay to say no to ABA therapy and find an option that works better for your child (though I know there can be pressure from school/social welfare systems, etc). It’s not something I have personal experience with but many older kids and autistic adults have talked about what a negative and damaging experience ABA was for them.

      1. Thank you for this link. It put exactly into words how I feel about ABA. After every session I feel horrible, like I’m telling my kid, just because he has autism, he’s not perfect the way he is. I do feel like he needs help in communication, and safety concerns, but all the programs and goals make me feel like I’m trying to raise a robot and not an amazing, funny, smart little boy.

  9. Thank you for your post! Something I’ve been struggling with is that the experts keep saying that my son (who is three) lacks “imaginative play.” I still don’t quite get what they’re talking about. I think he’s highly imaginative and creative! Thank you for clarifying the difference and that, in the end, the difference don’t really matter. Play is play.

    1. I don’t understand this whole “lacks imaginative play” thing. Gah. Jeannie Rivera wrote about her toddler son’s diagnosis process and how the clinician at one point noted that the boy wasn’t playing with an object imaginatively “enough” and at another point said he was playing imaginatively with a different object when he “wasn’t supposed to be.” *headdesk*

  10. Thank you. This is a wonderful bunch of observations. (Did Yogi Berra say “You can observe a lot just by watching…”?) I’m 61 and sometimes while walking I just want to skip and jump. People do something like it in organized exercise classes — why not out in other areas? Of course, I restrain myself until I am not in close view of others. All through my childhood my best and happiest play times were spent alone, because no one chided me and spat on me for doing it wrong or too slow or whatever…
    I love what Jen Van Dalsem wrote above.

    1. That does sound like Yogi Berra. Funny aside: when I was a kid, my parents had a Yogi Berra quote book and I used to spend hours paging through it because the quotes were so puzzling to my undeveloped and very literal brain.

      I do sometimes skip and jump while I’m out walking. My husband thinks it’s adorable and the neighbors, if they’re looking, probably think I’m a bit loopy.

      I’m trying not to read into your comment what the other parts of your childhood were like. 😦

  11. This whole post and all the comments are just making me so damn happy that my happiness over-flow valve has broken. If I were a cat I would be purring, instead my eyes are leaking.

            1. That’s what it looked like but after I left the ‘Thanks’ comment my uncertainty got the better of me and I went, “Gosh Two people sending me good thoughts is a row? I must be making some kind of mistake,” despite the fact that it was *obviously* a reply.
              My childhood insecurities still get the better of me sometimes. 🙂

              1. Aw. Have another set of good wishes. Everyone should believe they can deserve more than two sets of good wishes in a row.

              2. Okay, then I shall make myself absolutely and abundantly clear, my dear:
                I am leaving you, Beth, the best of wishes and good thoughts, warm hugs – and, if needed, comfort food. And a few fluffy tissues. For this eye-leaking issue =)

                1. Smiling so hard my cheek muscles are aching. 🙂 I will imagine that you use unscented laundry detergent for the hug and that you are offering me a big plate of currywurst and sauerkraut.
                  Thank you Svenja.

                2. I don’t like scented laundry detergent, so nothing to worry about there. You rarely get anything that doesn’t wash out in Germany anyway. Mhm, Currywurst and Sauerkraut? Fascinating combination. Currywurst is comfort food for me as well. I like it best from a snack stall at a parking lot in the town I grew up in.

  12. Wonderful post. I can’t imagine who I’d be – personally, professionally, and all points in between – without having had unstructured wanderings in the woods as a kid. I’m 51 – it’s important to realize that a cultural shift has gone on over the past generation where kids are pushed much more into structured activities than they were in the past. Autistic kids these days have to face up to this expectation as well.

    40 hours of therapy a week for a four year old! That sounds positively inhumane.

    A couple of links. First is an article entitled How Children What? ( comparing two books on how children best learn written 46 years apart. The first, entitled How Children Learn, was written by John Holt in 1967. From the article: “The fundamental thesis … is that learners’ motivation is essential and that because this cannot be forced, we must trust learners, working with them and their interests if they are to grow into empowered adults. ” The second book, entitled How Children Succeed was written in 2013 by Paul Tough. To quote the article: “The fundamental thesis of How Children Succeed is that kids will be more successful in school and more secure in life if we focus on developing their ‘non-cognitive skills,’ like the ability to persevere or maintain healthy emotional hygiene. ” It’s a huge shift between these views.

    Second, there’s the work of Richard Louv, who’s written extensively on the importance of nature to children and their development. His first book was entitled Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder. Needless to say, I don’t think you’ll find the phrase “nature-deficit disorder” in the DSM!

    1. Wow, that’s a revealing comparison. I’ve read Holt (years ago) but am not familiar with the Tough book. I will check out Louv since Nature-Deficit Disorder is somethign I can really get on board with. 🙂

      I’m close to your age and had similar experiences growing up–lots and lots of unstructured, unpressured time to be myself and explore. I feel bad for kids who grow up without that, though I understand the world has changed a great deal in the last 40 years.

  13. This reminds me why it is so great to have dogs around:-) They understand what play and just being together is about. (Most likely, other pets do too)

    1. Cats do too. My youngest cat likes to come to the back door and pretend he wants to come in so I open the door for him, then he goes skipping off. He wants me to follow him round the garden trying to catch him – waiting till I’ve almost got him before he bounces off again. And if I give up and go back indoors he’ll do it again. And again. Until finally he lets me grab him and cuddle him indoors for a treat. Daft. But adorable.

  14. This may be a benefit of not being diagnosed as a child. I wasn’t told I was playing wrong. It was fine for me to study insects and other small creatures, spend ages winding up the swing then letting it spin free experimenting with pulling feet in and spreading out, sewing minute toys I never played with after they were made. I had fun. I was playing right!

    1. This “I am somewhat glad I wasn’t diagnosed earlier”-Feeling is something I have been meaning to write a blog post about. I was treated and treated and treated for all the stuff I was misdiagnosed with, but never for autism …
      You did the swing-thing too? I thought I was the only one!

    2. Same here. And I sewed all sorts of clothes that I never wore. I just really liked cutting out the patterns and putting the pieces together and following the instructions and the whump-whump-whump of the sewing machine. 🙂

  15. Reblogged this on Swan Mothers and commented:
    “Society needs all kinds of people. It needs the kids who play house and school and tea party. And it needs the kids who take apart their toys or categorize their toys or couldn’t care less about conventional toys. It needs the kids who enjoy staring at clouds and the kids who would rather figure out the iPad by themselves than ask a parent and the kids who are content to spend their recess period digging in the dirt with a stick.”

  16. Now I’ve been answering people all over this post but totally forgot commenting on it:
    I love this thing to pieces. My very favourite paragraph begins with “Society needs” and I will need a place to put it prettily so I can look at it at all times, or make a cute desktop background out of it, or put it on nice scrapbook paper or something. If I had a child, I would put this in a frame in the child’s room. That’s how much I love this thing to pieces.

  17. please google Bernie deKoven and read some of his stuff. you will be inspired. I had the privilege of working with him for a few years off & on as a very young adult.

    1. Thank you for the recommendation! I just skimmed a bit and came across “the failure bow.” I have often rued the element of competition that constitutes so many games we consider “fun,” yet felt maybe it was inevitable and simply needed to be handled better, so I love love love the idea of giving kids a way to reframe the experience of “losing”! What a nice idea to wake up to today – it goes nicely with the sunshine!

      1. he’s pretty deep. I worked for the New Games Foundation as a long ago young adult. “Play hard, play fair, nobody hurt”.

        1. I just watched the Matt Smith TedX video and have tears in my eyes. Like others here, this whole conversation has brought me to feeling tearfully happy, but this talk brought tears of a different kind, thinking about the cringing kids do to avoid punishment of whatever kind. Tools for transforming that experience are so welcome. So thank you again – I look forward to reading and learning more.

          1. yes!! I’m one of those who think it’s an unconscious conspiracy. If people feel inadequate and are used to being judged, how much easier is marketing, military, and political lying…I also cry for lost human potential for love.

  18. This is amazing. Play should be done like no one is watching, which is something I’ve found myself struggling with. Whenever someone is watching me, or listening to me, I feel self-conscious like I should be being more serious, more mature. I’m eighteen now after all.
    This was a wonderful reminder to me that no one is ever too old to play. The moment we grow out of playing is, in my opinion, the day we lose our joy. Play is our way of unwinding from stress; separating ourselves from the rough day we had to tussle with the dogs or run with the horse.
    Thankyou so much for this.

    1. Yes!

      Enjoy being 18. I’m 45 and still very enjoy playing and being silly and acting “childish” at times. This past weekend we went on a family fishing outing and I spent most of the time lying on the rocks on my belly studying all the things that live in the cracks and crevices of a jetty. It was positively inappropriate for my age and yet I didn’t care because it was fun and fascinating and I was happy.

  19. And anyways, isn’t making someone learn through play might just fire back and make it seem like a farce or a lie? As well as telling the kid that playing isn’t fun at all.

    I tried to play “right” once. I used to have barbies and my grand-mother, who loves to sew, had made these huge wardrobe of clothes for them. I used to chose the right outfit, while a story was going on (the two dolls were planing whatever) and once everybody was clothed to biggest movement they did were 60° turns this way or that to accentuate the actual action and dialog going on in my head. Never out loud and never the big movement of “let’s go here” and “let’s sit there” (unless they used the Ferrari, but then the Ferrari wouldn’t move, I’d just put my hand on it and animate it in my head).

    And of course I noticed, on tv and in school and at my friend’s that they were moving them and they were doing the voices. So one afternoon, that I remember perfectly, I sat on the floor, looking at my dolls and though that maybe, since everybody was doing it, maybe I was missing out on something. I couldn’t see what but *everyone* makes the movement and the voices out loud, maybe you get something out of it that I can’t see and I’d love it move if I did as well.

    It went all kinds of wrong. Turns out the dolls aren’t the flexible, so making them move like I wanted was just a pain in the ass, the shock of hearing my voice was weird (even now I’m having trouble speaking out loud to a microphone unless it’s a telephone, it’s just weird, because it’s not “talk to yourself” tone of voice it’s too loud), not to mentions the voices, which had been perfect in my head moments ago, were all wrong and I couldn’t get the right voice. And then to add to it all my mum came downstairs to see if everything was okay (I’m an only child, they didn’t have neurotypical to compare with, so I guess staring at my dolls for hours was considered more normal than playing with them out loud). Never did that again. Screw it: I’ll play wrong, it’s better in my head.

    1. Wow, this is a fantastic peek inside the head of younger you. It makes so much sense to me that your play was more vivid when it was entirely imagined and it’s sad that adults can’t conceive of something like this being both possible and enjoyable. Thank you for sharing it in such detail!

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