THE LEGO FOUNDATION PARTNERS WITH SOCIAL ENTERPRISE, PLAY INCLUDED™ C.I.C., TO STRENGTHEN & SCALE LEGO® PLAY BASED LEARNING PROGRAMME FOR NEURODIVERGENT CHILDREN

News from the LEGO Group’s Newsroom:

Inspired by stories from autistic children and their parents, the LEGO Foundation joins Play Included™ to reimagine the ‘Brick-by-Brick™’ programme and help uplift children and young people who may benefit from social communication support to boost emotional wellbeing

Billund, Denmark, March 31, 2021: Ahead of World Autism Awareness Day on April 2nd, the LEGO Foundation announces their support of Play Included™ C.I.C., a UK-based social enterprise dedicated to training teachers and psychologists to use LEGO® play for therapeutic purposes as part of the successful Brick-by-Brick™ programme. The partnership is based on a shared belief that all children should have equal opportunities in life to develop the broad set of skills needed to thrive in the 21st century, such as social communication skills. The LEGO Foundation and Play Included recognise and value the unique talents of autistic children and want to help support them through the partnership. Together, they will strengthen and expand the Brick-by-Brick learning through play concept, reaching more children aged 5-18 years who can benefit from it.

The Brick-by-Brick programme brings children together through a shared interest in LEGO play in group settings that children call Brick Club. At Brick Club, they work together to build specific LEGO models or design and build their own freestyle LEGO creations in small teams. They take turns mastering different roles of the building process until the model is complete e.g. groups of three will be divided into an Engineer who gives the instructions, a Supplier who finds the relevant bricks, and a Builder who puts the pieces together. Since autistic children may need additional support with social communication, the Brick-by-Brick programme can help make interactions more meaningful and engaging through clear roles, rules and activities. By building and playing together the children collaborate, communicate, negotiate and problem-solve, developing friendships and creating social opportunities along the way in a safe and fun environment, guided by adults who have undergone comprehensive training in playful learning facilitation.

Image: The LEGO Group

“At Play Included, we have been working with the evidence-based methodology behind the Brick-by-Brick programme since 2004” says Dr. Gina Gomez de la Cuesta, Founder and Director of Play Included. “There are many reasons why children may struggle with social relationships. We want to help more neurodivergent children around the world to make friends and feel a sense of belonging and connection. We’re delighted to partner with the LEGO Foundation and have lots of exciting plans for the next couple of years, such as refreshing the Brick-by-Brick programme and creating a community of practice and new tools to track progress, to name just a few. Bysharing best practice, stimulating research and offering high quality resources and training, we hope to help as many young people as we can, who might benefit from this fun, engaging and effective programme.”

By leveraging the LEGO Foundation’s evidence-based tools and frameworks, and creating activities for the home, the partnership will see the Brick-by-Brick programme strengthened with more emphasis placed on playful learning content and facilitation. Studies will also be carried out to explore how this learning-through-play concept can positively impact the lives of children with other conditions, such as ADHD, anxiety or those who have faced adverse early life experiences. Together with members of the autism community and academic partners, new research will be initiated, focusing on the impact the refreshed concept is having on children who take part in the programme. Finally, a key ambition of the partnership is to extend the programme to more countries whilst increasing its reach in existing countries. 

Brick-by-Brick Programme Benefits

While neurodivergent children can often be misunderstood due to different ways of communicating, they have the same need and desire as all other children; to feel understood, accepted and build meaningful friendships to reach their full potential and aspirations in life. Brick Clubs give them a unique and playful learning opportunity to have positive social experiences, connect with others over a shared interest, improve emotional well-being and develop friendships. Playful, social support initiatives like Brick Club can also help to reduce any negative outcomes such as social isolation and mental health problems and help build stronger societal awareness and acceptance of autism.

“It’s not just about helping CHILDREN TODAY but THE ADULTS THEY WILL BECOME TOMORROW”, says LC Groux-Moreau, Autistic adult, Consultant for the UK National Autistic Society. “Childhood development is a critical determinant of a person’s social and emotional wellbeing. This can in turn impact physical and mental health, as well as academic success and employment opportunities in adulthood.” 

Image: The LEGO Group

With national studies showing that 50-90% of young autistic adults are unemployed or severely underemployed with many experiencing mental health issues (e.g. in the UK 80% of autistic adults experience mental health issues at some point in life, against 25% of the general population*), it has never been more critical to actively support social emotional development in autistic children.

The Brick-by-Brick programme builds upon the original idea of using LEGO play with autistic children to support their social emotional development, as many often shine due to their attention to detail and skill with LEGO building. This methodology is known as LEGO Based Therapy and was developed in 2004 by Dr. Dan LeGoff, a US-based paediatric neuropsychologist, and now Ambassador of Play Included. Research into LEGO Based Therapy has shown positive outcomes for social interaction, communication, behaviour and emotional wellbeing for children and young people on the autism spectrum.

Image: The LEGO Group

“Brick club has helped me to learn how to talk to people and not be afraid to speak out loud in a group. I have made new friends at Brick club and by learning how to join in conversations I have found it easier to talk to kids at school, go by myself to ask questions at shops and go on the bus with a friend without being anxious. Brick club is awesome because I feel more confident”, says Ben, 11, Autistic Child.

Whilst each person diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum will have their own unique profile of interests, strengths and needs, many autistic children are drawn to LEGO play, perhaps because it is a highly systematic toy and appeals to their strengths in patterns and detail. One of the acknowledged benefits of LEGO play for autistic children is the consistency in the way that LEGO bricks all fit into the same LEGO System in Play. This predictability can help children who may experience increased anxiety in social situations, e.g. if a child is expected to play with someone new. The many LEGO themes also help children practice their imaginative skills individually or in groups, and the instructions for these sets fit with the methodical way of thinking in autism allowing play to be structured and predictable, even within a social setting. There are an infinite number of creations that can be made, the possibilities are endless so each time a creation is begun, there is the desire to develop it and make it bigger and better.

“The work that Play Included has done with the Brick-by-Brick programme is inspirational, and it is a true testament to the LEGO Foundation’s philosophy of “Learning-through-Play”. Namely that meaningful, iterative, joyful, socially interactive and actively engaging teaching methods help all children to develop essential life skills such as problem solving, creativity, communication, and confidence; through the most powerful, intuitive way they know – play” says Michelle Ndebele, Play and Health Specialist at the LEGO Foundation.

“The Brick-by-Brick programme is also an inclusive concept enabling neurotypical children to learn and engage alongside their neurodivergent peers, after all, relationship building is two-way. So, we have great ambitions for this concept to secure more inclusive, playful, learning opportunities and we can’t wait to see the programme brought to more children all over the world.”

Both organisations recognise that as society, we still have a long way to go to fully understand autism and view this diagnosis in a more positive light, recognising how autistic children often have a naturally different communication style, including verbal and non-verbal, and a different way of socialising. This is the first of a series of autism related projects that the LEGO Foundation will get behind. Through partnerships and engagement with the autistic community, they hope to help raise understanding and acceptance of autism and challenge the stigma of autism diagnoses around the world. 

Refreshed training, how-to-guides, new Brick Club resources and professional materials will be ready by the end of 2021. In addition, there will be a renewed and fully formalized Brick-by-Brick International Community of Practice to allow professionals to connect and share ideas. Finally, the first in a series of homebased play activities for families, to support communication, connection and relationship building, have already been developed together with autistic advisors, Play Included academic partners and LEGO employees who have a connection to autism. To download these activities, learn how your child can take part in Brick Club or to find out more about Play Included and their work with the LEGO Foundation, please visit https://playincluded.com.

Professionals interested in being trained in the Brick-by-Brick programme can sign up here for the courses launching end of 2021. 

Image: The LEGO Group

Some further information about autism, and Play included…

FACTS:

·         Play Included have trained facilitators in 40 countries, and the current facilitator manual is now available in six languages: English, Spanish, Portuguese, simplified Chinese, Polish and Italian. More languages will be added early 2023. The project will be a dynamic and co-created entrepreneurial process with a focus on long term sustainability where support from the LEGO Foundation will enable Play Included to broaden and deepen their in-country reach and expand to more countries.  

·         According to the World Health Organization (WHO), approximately 1 in 160 children are autistic. Many more children struggle with social communication for other reasons. 

·         Every autistic child will have their own unique strengths and needs. Autistic children may view the world from a different and valuable perspective and may have considerable strengths often including attention to detail and accuracy. They may show a deep focus on an activity of interest with a methodical and novel approach to find innovative solutions. Many autistic people show a distinctive imagination or may spot patterns and repetitions others may miss. They are often very honest, accepting of difference and less likely to judge others. Autistic children may have a different natural way of communicating, socialising and experiencing the world, they may face social interaction challenges due to lack of societal understanding of autistic communication. (Play Included; UK National Autistic Society).

·         Research has shown that autistic people effectively share information and build rapport with each other (Crompton, C.J., and Fletcher-Watson, S., (2020)); however, challenges may arise between neurotypical and autistic individuals. These challenges may be due to lack of societal understanding of the differences in communication styles; therefore, it is important to develop mutual understanding and acceptance of differences between everyone.

·         Research shows that autistic people are at higher risk of poor long-term outcomes, such as poor mental health, loneliness, peer rejection and social isolation (Kinnear et al. 2015; Bauminger and Kasari 2000; Bauminger et al. 2003). This is often because of differences in how autistic people process information and interact with the world. Autistic children engage socially in different ways compared with their typically developing peers, and may not know how to initiate co-operative play with typically developing peers. Whilst some autistic children find comfort in playing on their own, these differences may limit the child’s experiences and opportunities to develop friendships, relationships and social understanding.

·         In 2021, the UK’s Office for National Statistics released their ‘Outcomes for Disabled People in the UK: 2020’ report which showed that autistic people are the least likely to be in work of any other disabled group. Just 21.7% of autistic people are in employment. Note, these statistics may vary country by country.

·         Australian adults with Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) participate in employment at a rate of 42%, in comparison to 53% of all individuals with disabilities, and 83% of individuals without disabilities (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 20092010). Similarly, in the United States, 58% of young adults (aged 18–25 years) with ASD have worked for pay, and only 21% are in full-time employment (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2013Roux et al., 2015). While some autistic people do find employment, many receive lower pay than their colleagues in comparable positions, they work in positions that they are overqualified for and end up working reduced hours (Howlin et al., 2004Roux et al., 2015Shattuck et al., 2012). 

·         Play Included Founder and Director,Dr. Gina Gomez de la Cuesta,is an HCPC registered clinical psychologist. Gina studied experimental psychology at the University of Oxford and did a PGCE teacher training course prior to completing a PhD at the Autism Research Centre, University of Cambridge and a doctorate in Clinical Psychology at the University of East Anglia. She has worked in many roles, including as Action Research Leader for the National Autistic Society and as a Clinical Psychologist in in the NHSSince 2018, Gina has been supported by Cambridge Social Ventures, part of the University of Cambridge Judge Business School. They supported her in founding Bricks for Autism C.I.C. (now known as Play Included). Play Included’s mission is to share best practice in the Brick-by-Brick programme and to enable others to use this playful, effective programme in their schools and services.

·         Play Included Director, Dr Elinor Brett, is a Child and Educational Psychologist registered with the Health and Care Professions Council. Elinor has been working as an Educational Psychologist since she qualified in 2013, supporting children with a range of Special Educational Needs in schools. Elinor conducted research into the Brick-by-Brick programme (known at the time as LEGO® Based Therapy) as part of her doctorate, in which she explored outcomes for children participating in the programme in schools. Elinor has offered training to professionals since 2015, and she joined Gina as Co-Director of Play Included in 2018.

·         Play Included are advised by paid autistic consultants in the development and testing of their resources and materials. They are in the process of developing a full advisory board to ensure their organisation, resources and materials are autism friendly.

·         Dr Dan LeGoff, paediatric neuropsychologist and expert in using LEGO bricks to support autistic children (pioneer of the concept behind the Brick-by-Brick programme known as LEGO based therapy), is an Ambassador and Adviser for Play Included.

·         Dr Jenny Gibson, Associate Professor and Senior Lecturer in Psychology and Education in the PEDAL (Play in Education Development and Learning) research team at the University of Cambridge is an Adviser of Play Included. 

·         Play Included work closely with the National Autistic Society to review their resources and materials. National Autistic Society is the UK’s leading charity for people on the autism spectrum and their families. Since 1962, they have been providing support, guidance and advice, as well as campaigning for improved rights, services and opportunities to help create a society that works for autistic people.

I think it is fantastic to see the LEGO Foundation partnering with organisations looking to improve social inclusion through play. Are you involved in working with autistic children in some form of LEGO Play, or Brick Club? Why not leave your comments below, and until next time,

Play Well!

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