Below, we present the results of the analyses related to School A.
3.1.1. Disability Makes Our Children Different
Staff at School A often emphasized the ways that disability set their students apart from other children. ASD and disability permeated the interviews with all staff members. One teacher reflected on play with her students: “Working here, it’s really different to where play is anywhere else. Just trying to teach kids that don’t even get the basic foundations of interacting with others. Yeah, just a completely different experience here than in other settings” (Teacher A2).
In addition to emphasizing the differences between their students and typically developing children, staff were clear that these differences engendered limitations in what their students could and could not do or understand. One teacher voiced concerns over her students’ understanding of danger:
Some of them don’t get the rules and they don’t understand the danger. A lot of the kids don’t have any understanding of the danger I feel, some do, but I think a lot of them are just trying to get through the day. (Teacher A1)
Another teacher explained why she felt that many of her students could not play cooperatively:
Because it’s really tricky for our kids, like they’re overcoming all of their issues to be able to just play with us. To overcome all of their issues and then have to overcome all the other kids with autism’s issues, makes an interaction between two of our kids really quite difficult. (Teacher A4)
Staff members at School A had considerable expertise in working with children with ASD and received frequent ASD-specific training. Their extensive knowledge about ASD may have led them to foreground disability during our interviews.
3.1.2. The Playground Is a Pedagogical Place
School A had an established, shared philosophy around play. Throughout the interviews, staff emphasized that they used recess as a pedagogical tool to develop children’s social, play, and physical skills. They referred to recess time as “play lessons”. One teacher described the school’s approach to play: “Everything we do throughout the day, we’re prompting the kids, and our playground time is an actual programmed lesson, play lessons, where we’re teaching social foundation skills” (Teacher A2).
On the playground, children had an adult play partner (generally a teacher or therapist). Play partners guided children to meet specific, measurable goals related to play (e.g., throwing a ball or sharing toys with a peer). Staff at School A demonstrated a belief that children with ASD could and should be taught to play “properly”. The occupational therapist gave an example of play lessons:
If I knew that Jack has a turn-taking outcome, I’d be like, “oh, Jack, let’s go on the trampoline, oh, it’s blah-blah-blah’s turn, okay, that means we have to wait”. And you’d try and facilitate those interactions that are working towards their goals, instead of just letting them work it out for themselves. (OT A1)
The need for play lessons, according to the staff of School A, stemmed from disability: without specific teaching, children with ASD would not play “appropriately” (or, at least, they would not play as the staff expected children to play). One teacher explained, “I guess kids with autism, most of our kids, if we left them to their own devices, they’d sort of be quite happy in a corner on their own” (Teacher A3). Thus, staff felt that adult intervention was imperative during recess.
3.1.3. Keeping Control over Risk and Challenge
The staff at School A recognized the need for children to experience risks and challenges, but many believed that these opportunities should be designed and monitored by adults. One teacher explained how she created situations for children to learn to ask for help: “With [learning to ask for] help, we’ve left them a bit longer…So, we’ve had a focus on waiting, teaching them what to do and then sabotaging situations so that they ask for help” (Teacher A1). Another teacher selected opportunities to step back, but only when she knew students would be successful:
Although it might not be risk as such, you know, I step back a lot and let the kids try and problem solve, especially things I know they can figure out, well, they can eventually figure out, that’s not going to get them too upset. (Teacher A3)
Organic risk-taking opportunities, such as climbing or solving conflicts, were tightly controlled and only allowed for certain students. Staff used their knowledge about individual children to decide whether they would permit risk-taking. A teacher explained why she allows some children to climb on play structures, but prevents others:
Kids who climb all the time and I see from assessing them that they’ve got really great gross motor skills, I’d be more likely to step back and let them climb to the top of the tree, than I would a kid who trips over all the time and spends most of their time on the floor or falling over or has less skills. (Teacher A1)
Staff reported two common reasons for stifling risky play opportunities. First, accountability to parents: many staff suggested that they might be more inclined to permit risks if they did not fear reporting injuries to parents. One teacher reported, “It’s probably the thing I fear most, having to ring a parent that a student has been hurt, especially when it could have been avoided if someone had just stepped in” (Teacher A3). Staff also attributed their low tolerance for risky play to behaviors associated with children’s autism—particularly “meltdowns” (Teacher A3) or tantrums resulting from an injury or challenge. The occupational therapist explained his approach to risk, “So we definitely think, because of our kids having some pretty intense behaviors, and they come on really fast a lot of the time, we tend to be really like risk managing, which is a terrible way to put it”.
3.1.4. Theoretical Proposition: What Happened at School A?
is a visual representation of our hypothesized relationship between the cultures at School A, the assumptions underlying the intervention, and the outcomes of the intervention. Notably, this figure (and the narrative that follows) should not be interpreted as causative or definitive—myriad other factors likely influenced the intervention at School A. However, our theoretical proposition demonstrates a potential relationship among these factors, supported by our qualitative findings.
The cultures around play and disability at School A diverged significantly from the assumptions of the intervention. While we expected that adults who worked with children with disabilities would do so from a strengths-based perspective, the staff at School A foregrounded children’s disabilities. Moreover, we expected that staff would be motivated to allow children to engage in play for its own sake and to play with their peers; instead, we found that the staff viewed play as an adult-led, goal-oriented activity.
We propose that the mismatch between the cultures around disability and play/recess at School A and the assumptions underlying the intervention led to hesitance among staff members to step back on the playground. The pedagogical approach to play left staff unmotivated to attempt the intervention, favoring their existing “play lessons” approach. In an attempt to remain adherent to the intervention though, the staff largely avoided the loose materials:
We always try and engage with the kids in the playground, and we didn’t stop trying to engage with the kids in the playground in the other areas, it was just in that area that was like the dead spot where you don’t engage with the kids. (Teacher A1)
As a result, one teacher suggested the children did not enthusiastically approach the materials:
I think the big thing that came up for me was in the playground we’ve been told and taught to play with the kids and interact with the kids, but we were told not to encourage them to play with the playground stuff. But somehow within that message, it kind of became if they’re playing with the playground stuff, walk away. So, I didn’t always do that, like I was sometimes playing with them when they started playing with it. But I think because they are so used to taking their lead by us, it ended up… didn’t get used that much. (Teacher A4)
Additionally, the disability-first culture may have contributed to staff hesitance. The staff members overwhelmingly suggested that the children had too many limitations to benefit from this type of intervention. The occupational therapist, for example, foregrounded the children’s difficulties to explain the lack of engagement with the intervention materials:
I just think, like, because these kids find it hard to play, a lot of them, I think perhaps if it had been presented a bit better, like if some materials had been put into the sandpit, if some had been put into the ball pit, if they’d sort of been spread out a bit. And maybe if the staff had been allowed to model, like, different things you could with it as well, I wonder if it would have got them playing a bit more. (OT A1)
The children followed the staff’s lead and avoided the materials and little meaningful change occurred as a result of the intervention. Without seeing early positive results, the staff settled into their typical ways of engaging with children on the playground. Our team observed little change in the staff culture around risk, and children demonstrated few changes on the outcome measures.
Unexpectedly, however, seeing the poor results may have spurred cultural change at School A. During our interviews, which were conducted after the staff received preliminary results of the intervention, staff members reflected on the need to change their approach to risk after seeing the results.
And so I really don’t think, upon reflection, we do give them enough of a chance to initiate the play because we’re always trying to get so much out of them, which is probably why they didn’t get as involved as what we would have thought they would. (Teacher A2)
The occupational therapist and teachers suggested ways they might approach play differently after the intervention. One teacher proposed bringing her students to a nearby mainstream school playground to engage with other children instead of playing with adults; another suggested taking days off from play lessons and allowing the children to play independently. Unfortunately, because the study period concluded, we do not know if the staff members remained faithful to these plans.