Social Play is one of the most elementary schools of life. But different children play differently, and the differences are especially striking within groups of neurodiverse children. Typical traits in autism, such as impaired social and communication skills and repetitive behaviours, make social play particularly challenging for children diagnosed on the spectrum, exposing them to a wide range of mental health risks. How could interactive technologies support such heterogeneous groups in engaging in social play? In a 3 year research project and over the course of 50 Participatory Design workshops with groups of neurodiverse children aged between 6 and 10 years, we've developed three different platforms for Social Play:

MUSIC PADS. No need to choose between gym and music class! The wooden hexagons laid out on the floor react to pressure and carry sound and light information. By joining in on social play, the children can produce their own jumping symphony – or cause a lot of noise (which can feel nice! Once in a while.). Different combinations of pads result in different effects – when the red button is hit, the sounds get redistributed. Nurturing Constructive Disagreement – a key design element of SPT.

LIGHT SPACES. The yellow, blue and red lights sewn into our fabrics add drama and atmosphere to an elaborate system of caves that was once a classroom. Some rooms were built for community, some for hermitage, with light signals travelling back and forth via textile blobs. Colours mix when the blobs are pressed at the same time. Could these planned dependencies and digital relations help the children engage in social play?

PICTURE STAGE. Drawing is often a rather solitary act – and that's fine. But sometimes it's good to share: to have others interpret your sketches, to add their thoughts for your drawing to evolve and use your work as playground – to engage in social play. That's the right time to turn on our special desk lamp: Equipped with a camera and object recognition, it communicates with a projector and shares whatever happens under its bright light. Little coded effect cubes allow to experiment with filters, until your elaborate subway route drawing has become a playing field for your friends to play on!

Turns out I had no idea what participation really meant before joining this project. It's exhausting: Deciding when to step in, when to let go, when to accept conflict and when to resolve it, getting to know and appreciate the many unique forms of our participants' creativity, observing and growing sensitive for how technological systems support certain behavioural patterns, for who is excluded and how to involve people with very diverse emotional needs. I've learned that in informatics, maybe more than in any other field, a field where it so much less work and seemingly more efficient to work with the normative and the binary, it is even more crucial to be inclusive and thorough, to document and evaluate, in order to create platforms and systems that can be repaired and adapted by humans to suit their needs. Platforms that help us trust each other, care for each other, be empathic, all while making our own decisions. 
Thank you Chris Frauenberger for leading this wonderful project with brains and sensitivity and for challenging and sharpening my views on the entanglements between humans and machines...
After three years, the project has now come to an end – and we were beyond happy that we were able to show the outcome at Vienna Design Week, welcoming parents, teachers and children to join the presentation of one of our prototypes in action!

Read our booklet! 

Back to Top