Eleanor always begins by reminding the children that anything that hurts is not play, then she takes them one-by-one onto the mats and follows their lead. Some of the children come out very aggressive, but over time – and sometimes after only a few minutes of play – their bodies soften. Their pattern of interaction shifts from violence to experience-sharing. They are more flexible and open, and also much calmer.  Often, when Eleanor plays with a child, it looks like a couple of puppy dogs or lion cubs are rolling around on the mat.  But something almost magical is happening.  A crowd of the littlest students flocks to Eleanor whenever she steps on the playground.  Our autistic children have started smiling and interacting with their peers. 

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Big, angry boys who have spent all of their school years fighting ADHD-related demons jump at the chance to play with Eleanor. A fifth-grader, new to the school, was extraordinarily competitive, and his play was so rough that he could not get through five minutes of basketball without leaving someone in tears.  He would steal the ball from younger boys and kick them when they tried to get it back.  We knew that he felt alone and angry and was having difficulty adjusting, but our best interventions had all failed. But since the first time he played with Eleanor, he has never hurt another child.

* * *

A 10-year-old boy Eleanor has been playing with the last 4 years since she started working at our school in 2003, has experienced many changes. When he started, he rarely engaged in steady eye contact, but now he initiates play, then looks at Eleanor, laughs, smiles, and seems to enjoy lots of eye contact.  In the past, he only seemed able to engage in play that he had initiated himself.  Now, however, he is more responsive to Eleanor’s spontaneous play. He also includes other children on the mat more easily, and will readily enter into play that another child initiates. This year, for the first time, he began to make up imaginary games, pretending he is someone or something other than himself and that the play environment is some different place or time.  We are amazed at the consistent growth of his ability to engage, be spontaneous, and initiate, and we are especially pleased that he has begun to experiment with his imagination.

* * *

A young boy, now 7 years old, has made remarkable progress. At the beginning of last year, he would only initiate short interactions of connecting with Eleanor in play from behind her, making contact with her back and then frantically running around the mats on his knees.  Now he feels confident enough to be able to approach her in play from any direction.  At times, he will just lay his body down in front of Eleanor and ask her to gently stroke his face and play with him as he is lying trustingly on the mat.  During this time, he engages with a great amount of eye contact.  Eleanor says that his interactions with other children on the mat seem much gentler now, and his movements are softer and less jerky.  He now makes contact with Eleanor in any way he wants with complete ease and comfort, no longer responding as if he were in danger as he did before. His classroom teacher comments that before he interacted with Eleanor, he acted tough in the classroom. Afterwards he was visible softer and easier to connect with.

* * *

When Eleanor started working with a young boy (now age 7), he appeared alone and not easily able to create connections with other kids.  She rarely noticed spontaneous play coming from him.  In his first few sessions, he played by doing the same three things each time: riding on Eleanor’s back, rolling back and forth across the mat, and inviting Eleanor to chase him. If other children were playing on the mat with him, he could not include them in his play easily or enter theirs.  After those first sessions, however, he began to do something new.  He would end each session by crawling into Eleanor’s lap.  Big tears would form in his eyes, and he would hold onto her, sometimes actually crying.  After about the 5th-play session, he began to tell Eleanor many things about himself and his experiences that were painful for him.  He talked about how very lonely he felt and how he had no friends. Now he can play together with Eleanor and another child on the mat. He shows more spontaneity and smiles and laughs a lot.  It is heartwarming for us to watch this change in him.  His classroom teacher noticed that his sessions with Eleanor left him worn out, feeling loved and eager to share.

Benefits of Innate Play
as Observed by Educators