Changing Social Norms Through Play

Posted on 16 April 2015
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Element Magazine, New Zealand herald

The greatest barrier to any social change being possible is society’s complacency and acceptance of the majority-driven norms. It takes extraordinary and visionary change makers to view the world differently and to challenge the status quo and introduce the need for positive change.

In previous Element articles, I discussed principles for creating positive social change movements – from capturing and implementing the Great Idea; to reframing issues with a positive outlook; to the use of Nudge theory to bring about changes in attitudes.

A key attribute of creating social change is “micro-mobilization” – the development of small, localised groups focused on finding a solution to a particular issue or challenge, which is part of the greater whole. It may not be possible to change everybody’s attitudes and pre-conceptions overnight but a small group with a particular micro-version of the greater issue can eventually mobilise big change over time.

Margaret Mead, sociologist said – “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has!”

 One group in society making great advances through micro-mobilisation are parents and families of children living with autism.

 Families and caregivers of children living with autism have told many stories of the struggle to understand and engage with their children. They therefore struggle to build relationships with them and to help their children build trust with the world around them.

 A real breakthrough for New Zealand parents of children living with autism is Way to Play - a programme developed by Neil Stuart and Tanya Catterall (from Autism New Zealand) in collaboration with a number of families and professionals.  Way to Play is a programme that works with parents to offer strategies for them to play joyously with their child – something every parent dreams of doing. 

 Through Way to Play, parents are encouraged to see the world through the eyes of their child.  By shifting what they perceive as “normal play” and finding a new way to play, a new norm emerges!

 The Way to Play approach is built on trust. By seeing the world from a child’s perspective, the parent is able to establish certain patterns of play based on predictability and variation.  The child in turn develops confidence and trust and is then able to explore and enjoy variations of play patterns and build a more joyous bond of play with their parent or caregiver.

 As one parent has described the process of understanding their child – “You go from being a mad interventionist and ‘trying to make them better’ to appreciating the person they are.”

 Former police officer Vicki Gibbs who has a son with autism was reported in the recent Mindfood article as saying – “Having a child with autism helps you appreciate the small things. They teach you to look at things differently. When you stand back and listen to them, often they are making complete sense, it’s just a different way of looking at something.”

 Small changes like this contribute to the overall better understanding of others.

 Borderless has worked with Neil and the Autism New Zealand team to build a web portal that will be launched on 2 April, World Autism Awareness Day. provides an online resource for parents and professionals who have completed the Way to Play programme with online coaching and links to other members to create support networks and forums for online discussion groups.

 Way to Play is an exciting initiative for families living with autism. It is a world first, a life-changing and society-changing programme.

 As a micro-mobilisation within the greater challenge of our perceptions, attitudes and behaviours towards all people living with autism, it is a brilliant contribution.

Visit to find out more about Way to Play