How We Play Within Lines - Skoog and Structure

A fantastic new tactile musical interface for iPad has been released in Australia this past week, Skoog 2.0. It is a soft cube that students can hit, squeeze and twist in order to send signals to the iPad to interact with most any music app, such as GarageBand or creative synth apps like Noise by Roli. When the iPad was released it provided an abundance of new ways for students to perform and compose music, particularly given the visual and tactile modes of interacting with the iPad to play instruments and explore sound in ways that traditional instruments do not so readily allow. There is an inherent accessibility in being able to swipe your fingers across octaves on the iPad screen that is such a physically different experience to otherwise playing notes on a piano, and often the sounds generated in performance iOS apps are more immediately harmonious in giving students a view to extend their performance in successful ways that mature the type of sounds they put together. Not that students should shy away from the beautiful challenge of traditional instruments and even atonality and the musical mastery that results, but there is a contrast here that is fascinating within autism pedagogy to consider: the balance between creativity with success designed in to the experience, and creativity with free outcomes and no feedback built in. When talking about the imagination of a child and how we provide portals for creative expression, it is more common than not to consider the free exploratory play side of creativity, allowing students to use loose objects to build, to paint pictures without prompts or guidelines, and so on - however, for our students on the spectrum this open ended, boundary free mode of creativity is often a very confronting experience when there is not an inbuilt trajectory towards clear markers for success. Taking this consideration, there are significant opportunities to utilise explicit structure in creativity, particularly when this creativity can function as a way of addressing core competency needs with students around social and emotional understanding. 

There is a framework of using Lego to facilitate social communicative play with children called Lego Therapy. We implement this framework in our school - it involves staff facilitating a play situation with three students. One student is the Architect, they have plans for a Lego construction, and they need to read the plans and ask the next student, the Resource Manager, to find the blocks needed for the next stage of the build. The Resource Manager then finds the blocks and passes them to the third student, the Builder, who puts the blocks into place under the direction of the Architect. This initiates a cycle of social communication that flows around the group of three students, from Architect to Resource Manager to Builder and back again, all the while engaging a creative play based situation that teaches collaboration, turn taking, supports fine motor development, and a host of other functional benefits. 

Consider the implementation of music into this space of structured creative play towards social communication goals. We are going to use Skoog to engage a Lego Music Therapy activity with students, using a similar structure to that mentioned above. The focus will be on students composing and performing a piece of music using chance based techniques, with a goal of developing social communication skills throughout. Three students will sit at a table or on the floor, with each student taking on a different role in the activity - the first student, the Conductor, will roll a dice with the same colours on as Skoog. When the dice stops and shows a colour on top, the Conductor will tell this colour to the next student, the Composer. The Composer will then match the colour of the dice by selecting the same coloured Lego Block and placing it on a Lego surface on the left-side of the surface. The third student, the Performer, then plays this colour on the Skoog. The cycle then goes around again - the Conductor rolls another colour, the Composer finds that colour Lego block and places it after the first block on the Lego surface, and the Performer now plays the first note and then the second note. As the cycle continues the number of Lego blocks, representing the notes to be played, continue until sixteen blocks have been notated across the Lego surface. The Performer then plays the finished composition - a series of sixteen notes using Skoog. This activity could be developed further by having students build up Lego block notes on top of each other to establish dynamic performance notes or duration of note performance. 

A very good book that was published last year, Savage Park by Amy Fusselman, explores the idea of space and play and risk in an explorative description of the sort of wild spaces that exist in Hanegi Playpark in Tokyo, a park in Japan where children create their own environment by hammering boards together, throwing ropes over trees and suspending makeshift platforms high above the ground, nailing and burning wood, all in an exuberant display of the sort of free, explorative, creative play I discussed above. It is a tremendous read and a timely consideration of the sort of ideas I’m discussing here in relation to autism pedagogy - the way in which we facilitate this sort of loose object free play, and the ways in which we can facilitate more structured creative opportunities towards anticipated goal outcomes. In the education of students on the autism spectrum, there is a necessary time for allowing the space for risk and complete experimental exploration, but there should not also be an accompaniment of guilt when more structured, colour-by-numbers style activities are designed for boundary driven success. There are, as shown above through our Lego Therapy and now the use of Skoog to drive Lego Music Therapy situations, significant benefits to employing structured teaching frameworks to initiative new types of creative play.