The Digital Organic

This past week I have been working on a new resource. Available now in the iBooks Store, it is a new text I have written titled 'The Digital Organic - Using iPad in the Garden'. Its purpose is to guide readers through a series of projects that utilise iPad in the school garden, with notes relating to particular ways of achieving these projects in relation to autism education goals. 

I have always enjoyed being in the garden. When I'm by myself I admire the beauty in the patterns and geometry that nature conjures, and when I'm with my daughter I relish how quickly she can turn a couple of rocks and shrubs into a fantasy wonderland for her toys to explore. As a teacher, I have sometimes struggled to know how to engage my students with the garden. Not a terribly confident gardener, my capacity to keep plants alive is solely reliant on the help of those more experienced. Where my confidence lies is in bringing the iPad into the garden space and creating rich educational experiences amid the flower petals and chicken coops. I love the capacity we now have to illuminate and visualise the microscopic world beneath the surface of flowers and bugs, to create exploratory narratives with our learning resources, to understand the garden experience from completely new perspectives. 

When working with children and young people with autism, I've often felt that there is something particularly unique to the profile of these learners that the garden is well suited to engage from unexpected standpoints. While I have had very few students with autism who have been intrinsically fascinated with the garden - a few have been keen to collect worms and small lizards, a few others have particularly enjoyed tending to and monitoring the growth of plants in class, but for the most part the garden cannon compete with more immediate special interest sources of engagement - it is through using the iPad that I have nonetheless found an enticing and creative entry point to introduce students to the joys to be found in the garden. Too, when we consider approaches to support the emotional well being of our children, very often the garden is a tremendous resource to support mindful thinking, to reduce the pace of experience and provide a sanctuary that is safe and supportive by its restful nature. 

One of the nature related iPad apps I was particularly enjoying while writing the book is the aptly named Toca Nature, one of the newest apps from wonderful app company Toca Boca. Toca Nature allows you to create a world of forests and lakes and snow covered mountains. Then, it allows you to dive into the world you have created and interact with the animal life that have been generated by the natural surroundings. It is a beautiful app, and one that our students with autism at school have been absolutely savouring lately as part of ecology curriculum work. The app blends the joy of fluidly creating landscapes, watching mountains rise and fall with the swipe of a finger, with free exploration not constrained by explicit goals or outcomes, just the joy of experiential play that comes about through visualising yourself in another world you have had a hand in composing.

This sort of free, exploratory play based learning is one of the foundational goals of the pedagogy I bring into the classroom. While direct, structured instruction in the mode of educational programs such as the TEACCH Approach are incredibly valuable and powerful in supporting the functional acquisition of skills in individuals with autism, the role of boundless, play based creative engagement in coordination with these structured frameworks are of core benefit to our students on the spectrum. Consider early childhood methodologies such as Simon Nicholson's 'Theory of Loose Parts', with its emphasis on the democratic creative genius of all children to engage with whatever facets of the built world they come in contact with, and the way we try to engage this methodology in later educational experiences for our students by establishing constructivist, special interest based environments that simultaneously seek to engage the role of exploratory play-based creativity with real-world problem solving opportunities. 

I think about this a great deal with regards to the programs in our autism classrooms, but I am also thinking about it with regards to the Summer holiday period here in Australia where I will be away from schools for five weeks while my daughter is also on holiday before she commences her Primary School journey at the start of 2015. I want to use this extended holiday period to maximise the sort of play we only get a half-chance for during our busy weeks throughout most of the year. If you are in the same boat, I encourage you to do what I will be doing and reading through Toca Boca's new 'Pure Play' magazine online to help inspire some of the ways you might approach new play experiences with your child. It has a tremendous range of articles, from recent cooking related ideas through to ways of counteracting the language of boredom that children can put forward as a test of engagement. Pure Play completely encapsulates the spirit of exploratory, emotionally supportive learning experiences that I cherish in the classroom.

I'll leave you with a brief description of a lesson plan that I use with our students with autism in conjunction with Toca Boca apps and the philosophy of Pure Play espoused in the above-linked magazine. The focus of these lessons is on teaching a variety of functional social skills, and it can be something you do over the holiday period with your own family. First, to Introduce the Topic, we spread out iPads between children and use Toca Boca apps with a focus on social collaboration, such as Toca Store, Toca Tea Party, and Toca Hair Salon Me. We get our students to share and freely play with these apps, as shop keepers, as customers, as guests at a tea party, as hair dressers. They engage in the process of social modelling with each other, sharing dialogues and the functional actions of these social actions - shopping, serving out food and eating with friends, going for a hair cut. The second part of the lesson, the Building Understanding phase, is where we then use the iPad to have students create their own social stories through apps such as Toontastic where students can manipulate cartoon characters in order to play out social scenarios, model their own interpretations of these situations. We use Stop Motion Studio Pro to have students create stop motion video social stories of the same situations, modelling the process of visiting the shops, talking to the shop assistants, following a shopping list. The final phase is to Apply Learning, where students actually engage in the social processes they've been exploring and modelling in the previous phases. Students go to the shops, or they might just act out the process of, say, getting a hair cut, playing out the scenario with peers in class with play resources. They film each other and watch the videos back and talk them through with staff, talk about how they did with the particular social skill being worked towards, discuss what to focus on next time. 

I hope you have a wonderful New Year break. I will be working on some exciting new resources over January that I'm looking forward to sharing with you before the new Australian school year starts. I will resume the blog and podcast at that time too. You can chat to me on @wrenasmir in the meantime. See you then :)