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School uses Kinect game to reach autistic children

The Jackson School
The Jackson School

Mathieu Marunczyn works at the Jackson School in Victoria, Australia. The school works with children with special needs and, after buying a Microsoft Kinect and playing "Happy Action Theater" with his wife, he thought it might be beneficial to their students.

He brought in his personal system and Kinect camera, and the students began to interact with the game. The results were more successful than they had imagined. The school bought more systems and equipment, and it’s become an important part of their daily routine. 

Why Kinect is beneficial

“They’re high needs, to say the least,” Jackson School teacher Emily Ford said of her students. “They need a lot of sensory input, so something that involved a physical element definitely appealed to them. The format of the game appealed to them as well. The simplicity of it.”

"Happy Action Theater" isn't a game in the traditional sense. There are no scores, nor goals. You simply play with the interactive scenes, and they transition seamlessly from one to the next. In one scene you may be stomping around in lava. In another you may freeze, only to burst out of your icy shell. It’s pure play.

“It’s simple, and it’s very positive. There are no menus, you go straight in, and they’re incredibly imaginative and expressive. And that’s what we want from our kids, to be talking and creating in their minds,” Marunczyn told the Penny Arcade Report. Creativity and social interaction are two areas where children with autism spectrum disorders often struggle, and the game’s unique lack of structure and boundaries allow the kids to experiment with communication and storytelling in a safe space.

“The social aspect is definitely a big part of it,” Ford said. “What I’ve found is that it bridges the gap between the kids. It’s not as confrontational as face-to-face interaction. It’s a scaffolded way to communicate with others. While they’re playing the game they’ll be talking to each other, and some of the highest needs kids will simply throw balloons at another student or shooting them with the fire game. They’re able to interact in a safe, predictable environment.”

The Jackson School
The Jackson School

When things happen in the game they want to share their experiences with others and describe what’s happening when others play. “The language experience that they get out of it; they’re talking when they play these games, and we’re able to model language with them as well,” she explained.

The power of motion

Ford’s students sit on yoga balls instead of a chair, due to their need for movement. By setting up the game in the classroom teachers are able to give the children another tool to use for movement and creative play. "Happy Action Theater" doesn't require button presses or tricky interaction with a menu to turn on, it begins to work when a student walks in front of the camera. 

“To have this game in the room, and kids can walk in front of the game as they play and get that input for five to ten minutes and they go back to their walk and be calm and be able to sit down and concentrate. It’s fantastic to have that in the room,” Ford said.

Teaching children with autism spectrum disorders can also be tricky due to their challenges with eye contact. The game allows them to look at each other through the game, since a video representation of each player is on the screen, or they can turn to each other and point at the game directly. “We’re several months into using this daily, and in a sense that the kids don’t get tired of it. We’re constantly seeing new things from them. They become so playful and imaginative. They tell stories based on their actions in the game,” Marunczyn said. Some teachers have their children write down stories they tell in the game using simple sentences. The game is a springboard to many activities and exercises.

Using technology like this in the classroom requires much hands-on attention and guidance, but the rewards are great. “Look, you always have to be careful,” Marunczyn said. While their teachers use things like iPads in a way that is active and leads to creativity and growth, there is always the risk it becomes nothing but another babysitter. Marunczyn explained that few have found any flaws in their use of the Kinect in classrooms. “Everyone sees what’s going on with the Kinect in particular and it impresses them so much. The emphasis there is that they’re moving, and they’re talking and socializing. If you have those two things, which are massive for our kids, being in a lower socio-economic area as well, you have to have some serious guts to criticize it.”

The Kinect, along with "Happy Action Theater," allow the children to lose themselves in play, and in doing so they can begin to communicate with others, be physical, and practice their social and language skills. This sort of augmented reality is a springboard to other activities, and is proving to be another tool the teachers have to interact with and teach their children.

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