Teachers Explore Uses of Pokémon Go With Autistic Students

By Kristine Kim — July 25, 2016 3 min read
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The phenomena of the mobile game Pokémon Go might have benefits for children with autism—and implications for their teachers, according to some specialists in the field.

The game that has children and adults alike roaming outdoors to hunt for Pokémon is free to play. It uses augmented reality and GPS to overlay Pokémon into what users see in front of them. Users attempt “to catch ‘em all” while battling other players and training their Pokémon.

Education Week‘s Digital Education blog has reported that the game’s “interdisciplinary” nature is appealing to some educators, who see opportunities to teach students subjects like social studies, local history, math, geography, and literacy.

And the game may also have particular relevance in some special education classes: Parents of children with autism and experts have said that the real-time experiential aspect of the game and its visually-stimulating content can be the encouragement children on the spectrum need to go out, explore, and make friends.

Autism specialist James McPartland, who is an associate professor and child psychologist at Yale University, told New York Magazine, “Pokémon Go is a topic of great interest to many people, on and off the spectrum. In this way, it’s a great conversation starter and provides children on the spectrum a topic that they are comfortable with and may be knowledgeable about.”

And now, there are online resources for educators to incorporate the game into their curriculum. Craig Smith, an Australian educator who gives workshops around the world on innovative and best practices for autism education, has created an iTunes U course called “Explore Everything with Pokémon GO,” inspired by his own success in using the game to teach and engage his students with autism.

While the course might be particularly useful for teachers who work with students with autism, it includes helpful tips and resources for other educators as well. Any Apple user can view Smith’s iTunes U course, which has a compilation of helpful learning tools, including compatible apps and texts. Possible learning activities include outdoor adventures, travel diaries, math problems, and group discussions that can be used to activate the minds and motivate young Pokémon masters.

Teachers can also verse themselves in Pokémon 101—Smith provides links for educators to role-play as a “Pokémon Professor” to spark classroom discussions on captured Pokémon, tips, and helpful content for students, just like Professor Oak himself.

An administrator at the Aspect Hunter School for Children with Autism in Newcastle, New South Wales, Smith told the Independent that the game encouraged his students—with and without disabilities—to go outdoors and actively engage with their peers. For example, he said, a homework assignment might be for students to explore their community over the weekend—they can submit screenshots of their Pokémon play, he said.

“For many of the children I teach it’s hard to engage in social activities—even going down to the shops can be socially overwhelming,” Smith said. “But what we’re seeing with the Pokémon craze is the same students are making conversation and engaging in social activities through the game.”

The real-time experiential quality and visual aspect of the game is also effective for students with autism. Smith told the Independent, “The architecture of the brain of someone with autism is very visually-geared. Typically around 90 percent of what a child with autism learns in the classroom is through what they see.”

Of course, teachers should ensure that the children playing the game are supervised—there have been concerns about the physical safety of Pokémon Go players, as reports have surfaced that gamers have been injured on account of their inattention to their surroundings.

Source: Image 1 by Flickr user Eduardo Woo, licensed under Creative Commons. Image 2 by Flickr user brar_j, licensed under Creative Commons

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.