The school playground, especially if its a large school, can be a daunting and scary place for autistic children. There is a lot going on, a lot of noise, a lot of people and this can all be anxiety provoking and confusing.
Here are ten great ideas schools could try to help make playtime more bearable for autistic children and those with Sensory Processing Disorder.
1. Provide a calmer quiet place to escape the busy playground.
Section off part of the playground and designate it as the quiet area. Loud running games should not be allowed in this area, instead provide seating and quieter or sensory activities. If you have a purpose made, fenced off area then great but if not improvise. It needn’t be expensive, some picnic rugs, a couple of windbreaks and a pile of comfy bean bags would even do. Just make sure you have somewhere for any child to escape to when the busy playground gets too much.
Think about the sensory needs of children when setting up this area. Use blankets, drapes, buildings or trees to create shade incase of sensitive eyes and provide a box of ear defenders incase anyone needs them. If you have a more permanent area consider planting a sensory garden with plants, herbs and colourful flowers. You could consider having sensory play activities in this area too such as sand or water play. There are more sensory play ideas in this article.
2.Provide an optional playtime schedule.
Consider structuring playtime. Even if you do it for individual children. Autistic children like structure, they need to know what is happening next. Playtimes can be the hardest time of the day because it is the least structured. Work with individual children to develop their playtime timetable eg. Ten minutes on the climbing frame followed by ten minutes of sensory play and then ten minutes of quiet area time. Print out the timetable and let them have one. Do be flexible, if they don’t want to stick to the timetable then that’s fine, it is there to help, not restrict.
3. Have a buddy system.
This doesn’t have to single people out if you have it on offer for everyone. Promote some older, sensible and kind children to be playtime buddies. Their job would be to watch out for any children who are on their own, find out if they are ok and help them join in with others.
4. Stress relief areas.
Along with the quiet place to escape too, some children will need to relieve their stress which has built up in the classroom in a more physical way. They may also need a way of handling stress and anger in the playground. Large play equipment is good but also try to have things like punch or kick pads attached to the wall or a box of stress toys.
5. Staggered playtime
One way of limiting stress at playtime is to make it less busy in the playground. Can you stagger play times for different years or classes. Some classes could have their break half an hour earlier for half an hour outside, then go into the dining room to eat for twenty minutes and outside again for twenty. Other classes could start their break half an hour later, go outside for twenty minutes whilst the others were inside eating and then go in to eat when the others went back out, finishing with half an hour outside when the others were back in class. This would half the amount of children in the playground and in the dining room.
6. Develop an escape plan.
Even with all these measures in place, some children may not be able to cope for the entire playtime. Develop a plan for them to be able to escape to a quiet place inside. It would be better if you could spare a member of staff to supervise this room but if you don’t have the staff to supervise children inside, maybe a classroom that opens onto the playground could work. You may need to give children that might need it a pass to be able to go inside and teach them how to show their pass to the lunchtime organisers. Different children will have different ways of communicating and some may struggle more when they are stressed so you may need different strategies for each child.
7.Map out the playground.
Have clear child friendly maps up of the playground and different areas. Use signs to point places out. Have laminated maps that children could help themselves to if they wanted them. The playground can seem like a massive place to a small child and making sense of their surroundings can help it become less confusing.
8.Have visual cues to help children communicate.
You may already have visual cues or use picture based communication in the classroom but do you have them outside too? Make sure playtime supervisors understand them and children know where they are.
9.Put everything in the same place every day.
It might be tempting to make the playground look different every day, with toys in different places but think about children who don’t like change when setting up. Keeping some consistency to what it outside and where will help.
Train everyone as much as you can and don’t forget the lunchtime supervisors. They may only be there for an hour or two a day but they have an incredibly important job. They are the first point of contact for the children at this time. They are the ones who need to spot a child that’s had enough, they are the ones that will deal with the aftermath of a stressful morning in the classroom. They are the ones who can make all the difference to an autistic child! Introduce them to the children that need extra care, allocate a lunchtime organiser to every child with additional needs. Give them information on their care needs, their triggers and ways of communicating and did I mention providing training?
Be mindful that wet play can be very difficult for autistic children. The unstructured change in routine and location is enough to make a child very anxious. When you mix this with a lot of noisy, excited children and lunchtime staff, you have a recipe for disaster. The best way to deal with this is to plan well in advance. Have a wet play social story so the child knows exactly what will happen if its wet play. Set aside a box of activities for them to do that they know is their wet play box. Make sure dinner staff are aware of any needs of the children and trained to deal with them. Most importantly let the child have somewhere they can escape to if they need it.
To get more of an idea of how play time can feel for an autistic child,you can read this post.
There are many ideas for creating an autism friendly, all inclusive playground and these are just a few to start you off. If you have any other ideas or tried and tested methods of your own, we would love to hear them. Please share them with us in the comments!
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