Our Play Beyond The Label movement is to create a standard for inclusivity through play by creating physically and emotionally accessible spaces where all learners can share the joy of learning together through movement. We’re excited to share why and how we started this initiative.
When we found ourselves working at the same school in 2012, we knew we had both a challenge and opportunity ahead of us. That year, our school opened a Community Class which was designated for students with the primary diagnosis of the Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). The ASD classroom was built as a brand new addition to an existing school that was built all the way back in 1983.
Our school consisted of students from kindergarten, grade 1 through to grade 8. Although the school had a team of experienced teachers, none of them had ever shared a space with students with disabilities, nor participated in any integration opportunities with students like ours: low functioning ASD, cognitive impairments, communicative needs and physical impairments. The first month of school was very eye-opening for both the teachers and students.
Like any other September, you’d walk into the main foyer of our school and see new bulletin boards with bright borders, name tags with neat printing hanging over coat hooks, and energetic staff members ready to start the year with fresh ideas. To the left of the main foyer was a hallway that led to the staff room and the Community Class. The looks our Community Class got in this hallway were priceless. Our students were wonderful and challenging at the same time. They would elope, sometimes outdoors towards the parking lot. They struggled with recess transitions and would flop on the hallway floor for hours. They had physical needs and required adapted equipment. To us, they were "normal" kids with ASD, with challenges we'd seen year after year with students prior. Other staff with less of a lens (through no fault of their own), were uncomfortable. When meeting in the hallway some kept their head down and swiftly walked by like stealth ninjas, some stared like we were the main act in a circus ring, and others greeted us with a very loud voice and spoke very slowly.
Our students in the Community Class were also entering a new world. They were getting used to riding the school bus to and from home, learning how to share a space with new people and sounds, and adjusting to social norms they didn't understand. All were non-verbal and most were English Language Learners struggling to understand a foreign language, all separating from their caregivers for the very first time.
We knew that a welcoming environment wouldn't appear overnight, but we were surprised at just how much work was ahead of us. As we look back at the simple interactions in the bustling hallways on our way to the gymnasium or out for recess, it reminded us of being adult chaperones watching over pubescent tweens attending their first school dance. No one knew the steps to the song. The default was one of two scenarios: avoid eye contact with us or greet our students in a baby-like voice. This was clearly a call for help. It was time for us to join forces, and marry our classrooms together. (Insert dramatic music while curtains open…) And this is how our Play Beyond The Label movement began.
Over the next year, we worked alongside one particular primary teacher, as keeping our students with age-appropriate peers was important to us in order to build a community that would grow with us as the students aged up through elementary school. We specifically chose this teacher because she was always willing to try new things in her program and had an open mind to take risks in everything she did. This class was chosen to be our integration classroom for not only physical education, but for music and art class too. It was most important for us to work alongside another teacher who was not only willing to share their classroom, but to adapt and modify it so our students could learn together simultaneously.
For the first three months of school, we spent copious amounts of time building the foundation of being a “buddy”; a term that students all over the school would soon connect to being a friend, mentor, teacher and ally to those in the ASD class. Our first unit in physical education was based on the learning goal, “We are learning how to work together through a variety of challenges.” We did a series of communication activities, cooperative learning and games that required the students to depend on each other in order to be successful. Everything was connected back to the Health & Physical Education curriculum and built on the strengths and needs of all our learners.
Outside of physical education, the students in the primary class and their teacher spent a lot of time in the Community Class where they had the opportunity to learn how to use assistive technology and different forms of communication. It was important for us to teach the appropriate language used when describing someone with a disability and to help students see the similarities and differences in how we all learn. We taught the students to prompt in the same way we did: using visuals, gestural cues and hand-over-hand when needed. The buddies learned to recognize sounds of joy, displeasure and frustration and how to respond to each in an empathetic way.
All of the learning we were doing became the stepping stones to building a culture of empathy and respect to those with different needs, while highlighting strengths in every student including themselves as leaders and mentors. Other students were starting to seek out our students in the Community Class during the whole school daily physical activity each morning. At recess, the Community Class was part of the play, and would be sought out by groups of students eager to do just that. Some teachers who would have never stopped to greet our class began to start conversations with us as our class became more visible in the school. As part of their own curiosity and learning they started asking questions: “What can I do to my classroom to make it more comfortable for the Community Class to visit? I’ve never taught a child with autism, can you let me know if this activity would work for the whole group?” These moments brought glimpses of hope that as our class grew our students would be welcomed by the school community in its entirety and not just by those teachers who had a direct connection to them.
In April of that very same year, we decided to hold a whole school event devoted to learning about autism for World Autism Awareness month. We had the opportunity to work with colleagues and community organizations to plan an event that helped teachers, students and their families to not only learn more about autism, but to also learn about embracing their own unique selves.
This event became the first of many annual celebrations at our school and shifted into an opportunity to build community and move beyond the label of autism. Over the years, we transformed this event into a day where every class contributed a piece of work that would come together to create a unified piece. The day of the event included gathering as a whole school to reveal the collaborated work, followed by a day of workshops where students had the opportunity to learn about ableism through the learning goals we had created. The students would develop a positive sense of self by exploring visible and invisible differences and build a deeper understanding of the diversity that makes each of us unique.
In April 2018, staff and students had the opportunity to focus on the learning by writing open letters to teachers, families and other students about:
* Recognizing labels and understanding how they contribute to our ‘bubble of awesome’.
* Developing a positive sense of self by exploring how labels connect to our visible and invisible differences.
* Building a deeper understanding of the diversity that makes each of us unique.
At the assembly we welcomed the renowned Paralympic athlete, Victoria Nolan as she shared her story as a blind rower and how she overcame her personal challenges in life. Following the assembly staff and students participated in a carousel of workshops delivered by:
* Victoria Nolan, Beyond Vision
* Lions Foundation of Dog Guides Canada, Service dog education
* Ophea Dove Confident Me, Positive self image
* Ontario Blind Sports, Goal ball
* Mental Health Open Conversations
In Apirl 2019, our school hosted a panel discussion to talk about the concept of respecting for self and others through the lens of visible and invisible disabilities. Our guest speakers included:
* Royan Lee, York Region District School Board; Curriculum Consultant
* Rick Lee, Adult living with autism
* Tai Young, York Region District School Board secondary student, Me to We motivational speaker
* Arvin Carandang, Athlete with a vision impairment
It is a powerful thing to see a whole school community come together to recognize labels in their truest forms as not negative, but positive indicators of self-worth. In the beginning, our Community Class was seen to some as different, removed and "the other." After an 8year journey, our class is included without a reminder and without a constant need for advocacy. While challenges still arise and the need for more teaching of inclusion continues, we feel stronger than before knowing we have a group of leaders behind us and with us. We are continuing the learning in our Play Beyond The Label movement. Every year we open a new chapter as changes continue to challenge us. From new staff, students, and structural shifts in the system, we have learned to keep our philosophy at the forefront of everything we do. Effective program planning in physical education and activity needs to be intentional and meaningful for all learners.
We are excited to continue our work with partnerships and organizations both at the school and community level, and look forward to sharing our learning with you!
The following video was submitted in 2018 for the "Together, We're Better" annual Community Living contest, which aims to highlight schools that are creating diverse learning environments that include students with disabilities. Consent was obtained for the use of student images in this video.