As a learning scientist and an entrepreneur creating children’s media, I believe every company should have a goal for child participation. There are real benefits to creating solutions alongside your clients, and that includes children.
More than one in eight children are considered neurodiverse, according to a recent report by the World Health Organization (WHO, 2021; Brown, 2021; Krzeminska, 2019 ). Navigating the traditional learning environment can be a challenge for children who are not neurotypical. Understanding and leveraging children’s strengths means considering the differences between students and how they think.
At Play Pattern, we believe educators and companies can do this without stigmatising said differences. Child participation is a key component to ensuring a child’s education is personalised to their specific thought processes, backgrounds, societal outlooks, and neurodevelopment (Mirfin-Veitch, 20). Education systems and teachers have struggles to create solutions for supporting children with neurological differences. There is an opportunity for EdTech companies to get creative and try new methods. That could mean learning from parents and caregivers to find hands-on techniques to teach children. We have a real possibility to change the learning environment to support all children.
NEURODIVERSITY: WHAT IS IT?
The topic of neurodiversity rises to the top of our list of matters related to child participation for a number of reasons. We teach all children and that includes the wide range of students. We are intentional with all the ways our participants identify themselves - racial, ethnic, gender, socio-economic, linguistic; therefore, it would be impossible to leave out the diversity in thinking, because not all children think the same.
Neurodiversity refers to the variations in the human brain and takes into account sociability, learning, attention, mood, and other mental functions. Neurodiversity is a wide description that encompasses the autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, dysphagia, Tourrette syndrome, obsessive compulsive disorder, and other cognitive variations. Additionally, we notice a remarkable rise of mental health diagnosis of trauma, anxiety, and depression in children, so we have chosen to embrace the variety of ways to support neurodiverse children, to support an even wider population.
Play Pattern has paid particular focus to the recent research and discourse about cognitive diversity. We design live workshops to bring experts in coding, gaming, and maker technologies into formal and informal learning environments. We work in so many communities throughout the United States and see the growing need for supporting children with cognitive variations. We are encouraged that other companies and organisations are increasingly recognizing neurodiversity as a major factor in the lives of children, and we consider this has been a major step towards creating a truly inclusive learning environment (NYT, 2022; Grandin, 2021, ).
We consider numerous dynamics that impact children in our programs, from their environment, to their identity, to their understanding of our material, to the variety of ways they participate online. We believe all children should have a voice in our communities, so we intentionally create those opportunities.
We do not embrace the deficit or pathological model. We suggest that any company seeking to create a live interactive experience pace activities that support real-time communication with all children. When online, use videos, chat features, and emojis to connect with students. We ask lots of questions, written on screen, in our chat, and verbally during our lessons, so children can interact and receive live feedback to create a responsive environment.
In the design of our online and in-person communities, our primary goal at Play Pattern is to centre the teaching and learning around the real-world experiences of children. We strive for diversity, equity, and inclusion as we believe these goals make a compelling case and guide our major decisions about our product development.
Our company relies heavily on the participation of children, and this is the intentional feedback we ask from children. We reflect on their comments, ideas, our pre/post surveys to steer the development of new programs and to rethink the old programs. Our facilitators are trained not only to share content and create amazing lessons to introduce standards-based connections in STEAM, but also they are tasked to ensure our classes reach all students.
The virtual learning environment should be a space where neurodiverse students feel accepted and valued for being who they are, but we often find that many children who start our programs are challenged, bringing with them the habits of mind and experiences of isolation from traditional teaching and learning. We aim to help create a better space online to practice new skills and old skills that help communication.
NEURODIVERSITY IN LEARNING
In both conscious and unconscious ways, many educators have developed teaching habits that further ostracise neurodiverse students within virtual learning environments. Techniques that may work in-person can be perceived by children differently online and affect a child’s sense of worth as well, making them see their difference as a hindrance. However, as the discourse around neurodiversity becomes more widespread, it is known that both neurotypical and atypical children possess skills and outlooks that can better not only their learning, but also their impact on the larger community.
An example of this is when we ask children to design games. While some students thrive through having specific instructions, there are students who can take our instructions to design new content and ideas. We see their passion and creativity. Furthermore, embracing the many diversities in our students is key to fostering the minds of the future.
When neurodiverse students feel a sense of belonging, they are more likely to participate and engage actively with learning. Along with supporting students to build relationships with our facilitators, we create a structured, predictable environment with clear routines and rules. Students build a real relationship with our facilitators, so we try to be consistent with who teaches our workshops and what happens in our classes. This programming is essential in supporting neurodiverse students to flourish at our programs.
Our programs are designed to be project based, and this lends well the space for children to express themselves. We are also better able to value their unique way of understanding and interpreting the world. Whether a child creates an animation in our workshop or designs a virtual world, we leave space for unique stories to be told and shared. Our community is a space where our ideas are valued for their contribution to a common project, regardless of our different traits or individual likes or dislikes.
Understanding multiple types of diversity is particularly relevant when we consider how to broaden our Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion goals. Our educators spend time during each program to get to know the children, and we discuss the many intersections we can have in our communities. We have children who are diverse in a variety of ways, intellectual capabilities, social emotional understanding, trauma, communication skills. By doing this deep dive into our community, we build the relationship between children and educators. This reduces the student’s anxiety and stress, making it easier to learn. We aim to ensure trust, so the child feels cared for by the very system that looks to teach.
We suggest facilitators veer away from lecture-based instruction that systematically guides students through the scientific process. Most students will thrive in learning scenarios where there are hands-on interactions and when learning is peer led (Stevens, 2012). Consider how to incorporate physical learning with abstract concept comprehension. Since abstractions are central to mathematical, scientific, and computational thinking (Núñez, 2012; Wing, 2006), finding and disseminating effective ways for teachers to engage students in learning abstract concepts will yield greater learning outcomes within the STEM disciplines.
Our previous research on improving the pedagogy of abstract concepts has shown that, through the incorporation of several principles in teaching and learning, for example, physical embodiment (Fadjo, et al, 2009), students are significantly more likely to apply the abstract concepts in their own programming.
There are many cases to be made for the inclusion of more diverse educators within the classroom, highlighting access to differing perspectives of race, gender identity, economic background, or in this case, neurodiversity. With the digital age making its way into classrooms throughout the past decade, educators are finding that technology has the power to offer fresh opportunities to learn. From audio-visual learning tactics to virtual learning possibilities, creating an inclusive space for all learners can be achieved through embracing 21st Century technology.
We recommend companies learn that neurological variations are a common aspect of the brain and seek to include and affirm the needs of people with variations rather than treating them as having conditions that need to be cured. We run public programs, and because we specifically work with organisations that aim to service a diverse population, we have learned that children learn when they see themselves. We hire and train a diverse population that includes our facilitators. This means we have to adapt our models and learn from our staff and the children in the program, so adopting an iterative approach has benefited our company tremendously. The neurodiverse participants provide us with a new perspective. In our classes, we offer an open-ended approach to project completion. This means we create challenges with physical materials or digital designs challenges. All projects can be completed with a certain amount of direction, but then can be rethought in a unique way. One project considered the design of 3D shapes, and one of our autistic participants chose to approach the entire project using materials in ways our other group members had never imagined. This happens all the time in our company.
We are learning from our clients, really innovative children, all the time. We actively co-design and ensure their participation and ideas are backed into our products and services.
NOTES FROM FACILITATORS:
CREATIVE COMPUTING EDUCATOR
As an educator for Play Pattern, I often find myself developing practices that cater to our wide array of neurodivergent learners. One of the most important practices I keep in the classroom is providing students with broad prompts and directions, which allows their own imaginations, intuitions, and ideas to shine through. For neurodivergent and typical students alike, this approach allows them to create something at their own pace and comfort level but pushes them appropriately to learn and discover. Similarly, I always try to reduce the anxieties associated with group activities by allowing students to share at their own level of comfort, be it simply describing one element of their creation or showing the group their final product. I try to foster an accepting environment, which allows all my students to feel at ease and excited to engage.
CREATIVE COMPUTING EDUCATOR
For me, education is rarely one-sided. There’s always a new perspective, outlook, or thought process that I can learn from my students, especially when taking into account their personal proficiencies in tech-based creation. Learning more about neurodiversity in the classroom, I started to think back to my own experience within the education system and how some of my peers had felt overlooked and undervalued as a result of their neuro-differences. More often than not, teachers did not fully allow students to voice the types of learning that would work best for them. It is for this very reason that Play Pattern forms programs based on student feedback. We need to know how students are feeling about our activities, for this makes way for a more genuine, well-rounded learning experience. Our programs being peer-led also allows our students to feel comfortable voicing their opinions, making them feel as though they are active participants in their own learning!