Making play sets more interactive and giving children with autism greater opportunities to control and add content of their own to the game could improve cooperative play with other children as well as giving them greater confidence in understanding how objects interact.
William Farr and Nicola Yuill of the University of Sussex, UK and Steve Hinske of ETH Zurich, Switzerland, explain that children with autism are often affected not only by social difficulties, but also have an impaired understanding of the way objects interact. They have investigated how toys, such as the "Augmented Knight's Castle" (AKC) might be adapted to be more beneficial to those children and perhaps even act as a therapeutic tool.
Writing in the International Journal of Arts and Technology, the team,from the Children and Technology Lab at the University of Sussex explains how they have examined childhood playexplains how they have examined childhood play with the popular Playmobil Knight's Castle play set, which as the name would suggest comprises a toy castle with various obvious components of towers, parapets, a moat and the various model people that can be used in imaginative play to enact various roles within the play set.
The team has thus augmented the play set by adding a wireless networking system and radio frequency identification tags (RFIDs) to the components to add feedback and programmable aspects to the play set. The play set might thus produce sound or movement given certain actions by the child playing with the toys. Their tests with autistic children volunteered to play with the AKC reveal promising results that are allowing the team to conclude that such adapted play sets can improve understanding and interest in the play set itself, but more importantly boost the level of interaction with other children playing with the toys. Indeed, the team noticed more parallel and cooperative play and less solitary play with the fully configurable setup for the AKC. They add that autistic children playing with the configurable AKC were also more inclined to actively play with the Playmobil figures.
Children with autism commonly struggle to understand the world around them, which means control over their own environment presents them with daily challenges, the team says. By offering a configurable play set that incorporates feedback systems that respond to how the children are playing, they hope to open up new avenues to children with autism through an increased sense of control. The AKC could reduce isolation for children with autism by giving them an increased understanding of how to control and engage with objects and by extension other children.
"There is potential for systems like the AKC to be used in a therapeutic way," the team says. They add that the play set could also be used diagnostically by allowing evidence to be compiled to provide a baseline against which a child's position on the autistic spectrum could be aligned and help improve a borderline diagnosis so that a child's ambiguous impairments might be better addressed.
- William Farr et al. An augmented toy and social interaction in children with autism. Int. J. Arts and Technology, 2012, 5, 104-125
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