Archive for the ‘Children’s Environments’ Category

The Built Environment and Autism 2013

Monday, April 1st, 2013

Today, April 1st, is the beginning of Autism Awareness Month. It is also Landscape Architecture Month. And thirdly,it’s also my third anniversary writing about the role of the built environment in the daily lives of autistic people.

A little bit about me: I am a Landscape Architect and the mother of a teenager who has been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. Since 2004, I’ve been researching how children act in different natural settings. In 2006, I entered the Doctoral Program in Environmental Psychology at City University of New York’s Graduate Center, and have been researching the role of the Physical Environment in the daily lives of children and youth diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD).

This month, I’d like to share many of my findings with you.

Researchers usually start with reviewing all the literature on a subject that they can get their hands on. I’m no exception. I’ll share what other people – many of them designers (architects, landscape architects, interior designers, software designers) – have written about and how we can build on this literature.

I’ll also try to connect you with other people who are blogging about Autism this month as well. Please share your own findings as well! This is an opportunity to change the world – the built environment – to make it more accessible for all people!

And, yes, I’ll share my work with you. I’m just scratching the surface, but I can say that, yes, the physical environment does affect how autistic people (and all people, for that matter) act and live.

This is not an April Fool’s Joke! Stay tuned tomorrow for more …

Musings on Post Occupancy Evaluations:

Tuesday, September 6th, 2011

On September 23rd, I’ll be speaking at the Play for Life Symposium in Minnetonka, MN ( about how to make play environments   engaging. (Note that my talk, is the same name as this blog: The Engagement Zone.) As a landscape architect, I have long used both my creative instincts as well as the process of design to create gardens. In my doctoral work in environmental psychology at City University of New York (CUNY), however, I started working on post-occupancy evaluations. This has enabled me to see the project through the eyes (and other senses, as well as ideas) of those people who use these environments. Wow! What a change in perspective!

My first Post-Occupancy Evaluation involved the – then – new Indoor Children’s Garden at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, PA. Not only did I observe and record where children and adults spent their time and the types of activities they were engaged in, I also interviewed them.

Too often, when we observe people, we presume we know what they are doing. It is as if our child asks us where babies come from and, as we turn all shades of purple and green thinking about what to say in response, our child then notes, “I thought it was from the hospital, but Freddie says his brother was born in a swimming pool…” It is so much better to ask, not just watch. You would be amazed at what you will learn, especially from children.

One of the most interesting examples was when a mother of a 4-year old told me her daughter was afraid to go into the Secret Room with the Drooling Dragon at Longwood Gardens. This “dragon” is a huge face with a mouth that not only drips water (it’s a fountain) but is backlit with red lights so that some of the kids think there’s blood back there. The woman further indicated that her daughter was so afraid of being eaten by this dragon that she would avoid going in that area of the garden.

She wasn’t the only one, it turned out. Other children, as well as other parents, said the same thing. I noticed that all of these children were younger than 4 years of age. Further, when I observed children in that area of the garden, I noticed that they were older. Actually, they were larger – at least their arms were longer. The kids who were not afraid of the dragon were those who could reach into the mouth of the dragon and touch the water!

At this same time in my evaluation, I was interviewing staff members who were involved with the garden. Nancy Bowley, in Visitor Services at Longwood Gardens, who created innovative activities for the children, mentioned to me that the pieces of chalk the staff kept in the Secret Room was discoloring the slate walls – something they had not considered in the design stage. I suggested that they use, instead, big paintbrushes that could be dipped into the water coming out of the mouth of the dragon and “painted” onto the walls. I had discovered this suggestion when I performed an archival review of Longwood Gardens’ design process as part of the Post-Occupancy Evaluation. However, I also noted that, by holding a big paintbrush, this would extend the reach of a younger child whose arms would not yet reach the water in the dragon’s mouth!

Nancy wrote a note over the door in the Secret Room: “Please dip your brush into my mouth and paint me a picture. Signed, The Drooling Dragon.” I immediately started observing older children following this advice. Further, I noticed smaller children watching the older children…before dipping the paint brushes into the dragon’s mouth themselves!

This shows how my interactive way of conducting a post occupancy evaluation increased usage of the garden, reduced damage to the materials, and helped children overcome their fears through watching their peers!

How might this process help your project???

Accessibility: What makes Morgan’s Wonderland Special?

Tuesday, August 9th, 2011

Morgan’s Wonderland is being heralded as a place for children of all abilities. It is, but in which ways?

This place was designed with even, level pathways and ramps first. Steps are included, but only occasionally, and then mostly for skill development rather than access from the ground up to another level. For example, a person who can’t walk without assistance may be able to hold onto the railing on a playground and use the steps for strength training. The major route, however, is a ramp with railings to allow for baby strollers, wheelchairs, assisted movement such as walkers, etc. The whole area is pretty flat to begin with; they’ve added some elevation to the paths to give them some variety. It doesn’t appear that the paths provide any challenges, however.

Swings are designed for a range of abilities. There is a large swinging area (maybe they should make a sign, “For Swingers Only!”) that has specialized swings to support individual’s backs, wheelchairs, as well as the small rubber swings for toddlers. By late morning, children of all abilities were out there, swinging in the shade made by brightly-colored shade structures that covered all the play equipment areas.

The carousel, conveniently located next to the Entrance Building, is set at the same level as the sidewalks. People enter the carousel either by stepping over the narrow gap between the sidewalk and the carousel or by rolling over a textured, galvanized steel- plate “bridge”. Once on board the carousel, riders can select their seat – there are traditional types of seats on animals or in gondola-like rides which also include special seating and locking devices for wheelchairs.

The Off Road Adventure Ride includes a series of cars that move on a track. The driver can, by turning the wheel (as did the youngster who drove our vehicle), wiggle around the course. Specialized cars have a back seat area that is large enough to support a cut out for a wheelchair, with locking devices. In order to provide access to the car, there is a wheelchair ramp that goes up to a platform which can be swung over to the back seat of the car. The swinging platform and the floor of the back seat are at the same level, providing smooth access. A group that got on before I did consisted of middle-aged brothers with their elderly father (who moved with the aid of a walker). They were all smiles when their car returned to the docking station!

The playgrounds provide ramp access for all. As mentioned in the beginning, there are “challenge” areas, such as steps or island-like pods that you can jump from one to the other. There are also a range of sensory see-saws or rockers: some are made for two people (traditional type), while others can be rocked by hand. Yet another is a huge rocking platform with two couch-like seats on opposite ends. Groups or individuals can sit on the couches and rock – either gently or more rigorously – and the momentum creates the effect of a glider chair.

There are sand and water table areas for sensory exploration and just plain old fun. (9877) The sand area consists of four sand pits with a central sand table, accessible from the sidewalk. One can wheel the wheelchair so your legs are under the sand table. This is not the case, however, with the water tables, where you can only gain side motion access because the motors that power the water tables take up all the room under the water tables. If the overhanging area for the water were made longer so that the wheelchairs could also be placed under it, like the sand table, the people in the wheelchairs would be able to put both of their hands in the water and move objects about more naturally. (Thanks to Ingrid Kanics for pointing this out). I will also note that if there were access to water in the sand area, children could wet the sand, making it more moldable. It’s one thing to be able to move sand about and feel it in your hands. It’s quite another to construct something with the sand – construction play involves both imagination and process.

Then there is the train. The platform along the train’s edge at the “station” provides access onto the train. And, then you can gain access all over Morgan’s Wonderland. It’s a great ride, brings back memories of childhood (ok, I was on a ride like this not too long ago…). Well, at the very least, it is cool and brings a smile to your face!
At the end of the day, the fact that just about everything is within easy reach for everybody is a relief for most of the people visiting Morgan’s Wonderland. Now, if we can get all of our public places to be like this, what a wonderful place the world would be!

Accent on Security

Friday, August 5th, 2011

One of the features that stood out for me at Morgan’s Wonderland was their security program. As I purchased my ticket in the air conditioned ticket “center” (more on this another day – it’s worthy of mentioning!), the ticket taker presented me with a wristband to wear during my visit.

All visitors, I was told when I asked about this, receive such a wristband. It has a chip in it that helps to locate certain features on the site – especially if you can’t read, have trouble figuring out maps, and still want to find places such as restrooms, food and drink, etc. There are kiosks (such as in the photograph) provided throughout Morgan’s Wonderland where you can scan your wristband and find these facilities. This wayfinding tool is pretty neat. I confess that I didn’t notice the kiosks in the park, except the one next to the entrance, so didn’t think about using it instead of the map that I collected upon entering (but I’m old fashioned). However, if you don’t read English, or have difficulty with maps, this tool can be really helpful.

More importantly, this system helps to locate individuals who may get separated from the rest of their party. When a group of people want to come and visit Morgan’s Wonderland, they are requested to register in advance. The staff at the playland produces a number of wristbands with the same chip properties for that group. In the event that someone gets lost, a group member can go to the kiosk and scan their personal wristband. This will activate ALL the group members’ wristbands so that they appear on the map, showing their individual locations simultaneously. Presumably, all members of the group who are not lost would be located in proximity to one another. The person who has become separated from the group should also show up on the kiosk map, enabling the group to find that individual.

As I have been writing this, it reminded me of the many times my young son would run away when we ventured into public space. He was between two and five years old when he would run away. His speech wasn’t well developed, and he wouldn’t speak to strangers. He didn’t do this all the time – which meant we never quite expected this to occur. He’d walk with me in a store, holding my hand; next minute, he was scampering off, hiding behind the legs of a store clerk. Early on, he figured out how to get out of the stroller harness and proceeded to run through the sprinklers at the local botanic garden. Or, once, he was sitting next to me on the coping wall of a small pond at a garden center. I was talking to one of the assistants about the pond plants at the time when my son suddenly stood up and jumped into the pond. Fortunately, the garden assistant was instantly able to grab him and pull him out of the pond! My husband reminded me of the time they were standing by a friends’ pond when our son just jumped in without any warning. Another time, we were sitting at a picnic table at a local farm where they made and sold ice cream. Matthew was eating his ice cream cone one minute. The next minute, he was bolting through the busy parking lot 50 yards away! (We now think he should be on the track team). We noticed, at the time, that he didn’t respond when we called for him to stop. It was as if he couldn’t hear or process the sounds. Fortunately, he (and we) survived his early childhood bouts with running away!

Our son is not the only one who does this! The aspect of running away has been written about in the literature regarding Autism Spectrum Disorder. Just this week, a young child (diagnosed with ASD) drowned in a puddle after a rainstorm in the Philadelphia region after the parents reported him missing from the house. Our local Autism Listserve keeps us abreast of articles regarding findings, events, and everything-autism. Here’s good information on wandering:

The National Autism Association has a safety toolkit on autism and wandering:

Morgan’s Wonderland has taken steps to not only make a place fun and accessible to be in, but also helps to reassure caregivers that their children/charges will be safe from getting lost because of wandering. I was not present when large groups came into the park, so I don’t know if the caregivers/chaperones were made aware of how to use the kiosk system to activate the wristband information. This may be an important consideration for play environments regarding children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder and other developmental delays; quite possibly, it may be important for toddlers’ environments as well.

May Day!

Sunday, May 1st, 2011

My apparent monologue on April is Autism and Landscape Architecture Month has ended. I would greatly appreciate your comments!

As part of my research, I’d love to continue researching how autistic children engage in their day to day environments, and would attempt to evaluate places designed specifically for them to continue this discussion.

Do you know of public gardens, parks, playgrounds, or even schools and institutional uses that have been designed for children with autism? Comment here or send me an email at! Thanks!

April is Autism and Landscape Architecture Month, Part XVIII: The Last Day of April

Saturday, April 30th, 2011

I’ve been researching environments for children since 1999 when I designed a series of sensory gardens for children with special needs at St. Edmond’s Home for Children in Rosemont, PA. But my experience with autistic children and the physical environment went back much earlier.

When our family moved into our present house, my son was barely two years old. We had some idea that he was different from other children his age, but no one could put their finger on what it was. It wasn’t until he entered Kindergarten that the school psychologist suggested we have him observed and diagnosed by a psychiatrist. We agreed and learned that the diagnosis was Asperger’s syndrome, considered to be on the higher functioning range of Autism Spectrum Disorder. His speech was delayed and he tended to walk around all day, holding two small animals from Fisher-Price’s Farm in his fists. He graduated to small dinosaur toys at around the age of two and would cry when parted from them. The rest of the world seemed foreign to him.

As a landscape architect, I knew how important nature and the local landscape meant to me and my husband (who had studied ecology in college). I wanted to create our garden as a place where our son could learn to engage with nature. My husband agreed. So, I planted to attract wildlife: berried shrubs as well as caterpillar and nectar plants that attracted birds and insects. This tactic was pretty successful. We found our son hiding in a thicket of shrubs one day, watching the neighbor’s cat prowl for rodents. Another day, he found a praying mantis egg case. Still another time, he brought an “egg” for me to identify. It was a small, capsule-shaped object which he cut open to reveal something that looked like a grub inside. I told him I didn’t know what it was and he went back outside. A month or so later, we were sitting at the dining room table when his eyes got big and wide. “Oh! Oh!” he exclaimed and ran to the buffet. Tucked into the back of the buffet surface was a plastic cookie container, filled with sand. I noticed that holes had been poked into the plastic top to let in air. And, flying around the container was a digger wasp! He explained that he had found the “eggs” in my sand pile (left over from working on garden paths) and put them in this makeshift terrarium to hatch. And hatch they did!
Later, when I had the opportunity to put in a pond, I first asked him whether he wanted one and, if so, where would he like it to be. He pointed to the place where the grass grew the best in the front yard. So the digging began! He watched the workmen dig the pond and install the liner, and he even helped fill the liner with water from the garden hose. While I carefully selected aquatic plants at local nurseries, he started wandering off into the area where they kept fish and tadpoles and begged me to get some for the pond as well.

He would go out to the pond each morning before we walked to school, and visited every afternoon when we got home. He’d drag me down to see each new creature. When the weather got warm, he’d change into swim trunks and wade in…until he started finding dragonfly larvae and snakes in the pond. After that, he was content to lie on the big, flat stones that lined the pond and dip his water in to touch tadpoles or pet the fish.

We used the garden and pond as a draw to attract children to us as well. Whenever we invited children over for play dates, they all inevitably ended up outside by the pond or up in the big Japanese maple. Recently, one of the boys told my son that he liked coming over to our house because we actually had trees that they could play in!

Back in 2004, I noticed our son behaving differently in nature settings when we were vacationing in the Adirondacks. I was teaching at the University of Delaware at the time and decided to do an observational study of children in nature camps – to see if children behaved differently in the various places. There was little research being done on the physical environment and the role the environment played for autistic children, so I decided to go on for my doctorate to study this and to be able to apply it as a landscape architect. The blog essays this month relate to my ongoing research. Thank you for posting your comments and, at the very least, accompanying me on this month’s exploration! I hope you enjoyed it!

Yesterday, I wrote that there are very few outdoor environments that have been built for autistic children. One way to help increase the database of knowledge in design is to evaluate such places and discuss their merits. I have been performing post occupancy evaluations of this type with different forms of children’s environments, but not specifically for autistic children (outside of my own garden). If you know of one, please comment on this blog!

April is Autism and Landscape Architecture Month, Part XVI: Places for Mastery

Wednesday, April 27th, 2011

Yesterday, I wrote that the autistic children who collaborated with me on my study particularly enjoyed places for mastering skills, hobbies or special interests that accompanied art, athletic and intense hobbyist activities. How can we incorporate these into the built environment?

Arts and crafts activities take place in studios and areas of playgrounds and schoolyards that are dedicated for arts. Outdoor areas frequently have picnic tables and easels, although adventure playgrounds usually provide small tables and saw horses available for building things and the activities associated with them: sawing, hammering, sanding and painting. Many of the child collaborators had mentioned that they preferred shady areas, so placing the tables in shade or making them portable enough so that children can move them easily helps them to work with less anxiety and fosters a sense of self-reliance and independence as well.

Athletic activities typically take place in recreational areas, fields, and playgrounds. But children will play in left-over vacant spaces that are large enough to accommodate the activity. Austin, for example, practices hitting a softball in the vacant lot next to his house. Max practices kicking a ball between two trees in his backyard. Josh and his friends play touch football on the sidelines of the varsity football game.

Flat places, such as paved driveways, empty parking lots and paved areas of playgrounds provide smooth surfaces for riding bikes, scooters and skateboards for newbies before they build skills and can ride on the road or places that are more challenging.

Playground features are being developed that accommodate a wider range of abilities. Kaboom and Landscape Structures are coming out with equipment for children with hypo- and hyper-sensitivity issues.

Other activities, such as intense hobbies, may be so varied that it is hard to provide for all of them in one place. I like to recommend checking out existing children’s environments for ideas. Places for children, such as the Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia, frequently attempt to give children lots of choices for activities. While they may not have dinosaurs, for example, they do have a room with a huge water table, as well as places to build with blocks, draw, do crafts, and experiment with optics. San Francisco’s Exploratorium is a wonderful way to explore different forms of technology – some can be adapted to the playground or home environment and played with on a daily basis.

Perhaps the strongest design message is to provide a wide range of affordances. Let the child figure out ways to use the settings and props. If you plan in too narrow an interpretation, fewer children will use it.

April is Autism and Landscape Architecture Month, Part XV: Pulling this together

Tuesday, April 26th, 2011

As I look more at the topic of Special Interests and go through my data on the places and activities that my child collaborators enjoy, I start to see certain patterns. While this information is based on 13 different children, I am reluctant to say that this represents all children with autism. With that said, however, I feel it starts to raise issues that can be researched further. Here goes…

I combined the special interests of my 13 child collaborators with the places that they particularly enjoyed. Here’s the breakdown as to the combinations:

1) Mastery (games, sports, things of interest including art, music, learning about something): 10 children out of 13. I use the term mastery because the children tend to do these things on a regular basis and do these out of choice rather than through coercion. This is the type of activity that we usually associate with athletes or artists or intense hobbyists. The places where these activities take place are quite varied.

2) Discovery (looking for creatures or things): 10 children out of 13. Interestingly, many of these activities are performed by the child alone, without supervision, in places such as the child’s backyard. Many of these are situated in natural or garden settings. Some take place on sidewalks, parking lots, and in-between places (between home and school, etc).

3) Nature (searching for animals, plants, digging, collecting, discovering, reading about, being in, touching water, etc.): 9 out of 13 children. Most of these places have a variety of affordances, including sun/shade, many types of plants and habitats for animals, and often contain water.

4) Sensory Engagement: 7 out of 13 children. These include a variety of active engagements such as riding on scooters and bikes, sand play, swinging, and walking/hiking. They take place in a variety of settings such as amusement parks, backyards, beaches, driveways or local streets, hammocks, inside the home, parks, playgrounds, and trampolines.

5) The other combinations tend to be more personal, dependent upon the individual’s interests and experience.

I now invite you to think about these five categories and how the special interests and qualities of engagement can be combined to create more meaningful public places that will include these kids. What are your thoughts?

April is Autism and Landscape Architecture Month, Part XIV: More on Special Interests

Monday, April 25th, 2011

For those of us who design physical environments for children, we tend to think about themes that attract young children: characters from television and children’s books prove to be popular. There are countless theme parks – from Sesame Street to Disney World – that are built around characters and stories (Harry Potter comes to mind). Even adults flock to these recreations of place and action (Universal Pictures) or actually create the place and action before the movie (Pirates of the Caribbean). Places like this can be the universal melting pot – engaging the kid in all of us!

The sensory situations of these types of places frequently leave much to be desired! Crowds, noise, smells and other forms of sensory overload can send kids over the edge. However, most of my child collaborators and their parents have told me that when the child is really interested in something, they will put up with a lot in order to just participate. One young woman, who regularly wears noise-canceling headphones when the lawn is being mowed outside her house, was able to enjoy herself at a professional hockey game where the reverberating noise was an even higher volume – without the headphones. The difference was she wanted to be at the game with her friends. While the noise was a problem, the experience was worth it.

Another type of special interest place that proves popular includes anything dinosaurs – mostly for boys under the age of 12. However, what happens to older children, especially teenagers? Two autistic preteens, who attended paleontology talks at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, asked questions that kept the lecturers on their toes. After the talk, the lecturers engaged the youths in a discussion and recommended, in earshot of their parents, that they continue their studies – it’s hard to find kids who are that interested and knowledgeable about dinosaurs when they get into their teens and young adults. The paleontologists have been there, too, they told me. They continued with their dinosaur love fests into high school, college and graduate school. Places such as the Academy have started programs where such teens can volunteer as guides or help out behind the scenes while staying in touch with their special interests.

Other programs/places for teens are found in art centers and nature preserves/centers where they help assist camp instructors and staff. The Center for Creative Arts in Yorklyn, Delaware, swaps volunteer hours in classes and summer camps for admission into teen/adult courses. The Delaware Nature Society and Winterthur Museum, Gardens and Library also attract teens to be junior naturalists, to encourage their interests in nature in order to help them grow their interests into their adulthood. In all these programs, youth of all abilities are able to immerse themselves in their special interests – both in the form of activities and physical setting – and meet others who share their interests. What a win-win situation!

Autism and Landscape Architecture Month, Part XII: The Role of Special Interests

Wednesday, April 20th, 2011

Sometimes when we design social environments, we are actually designing stages that provide settings for action and activities. Last week, I had mentioned that when a place has many affordances – when it affords many opportunities – it not only provides more places to play but also provides children with ways to think about how the environment becomes a catalyst for activities that might not be spelled out. By this, I mean the activities in the place may not be obvious. We look at a see-saw and think that it provides only one activity that requires two people to play. But a tower on a pre-fabricated playground can provide both a lookout as well as the stern of a ship, a place to give directions, launch water balloons, sing songs, etc., depending upon the person, time of day and circumstances surrounding the occurrence.

As a note to those of you reading this who do not have autistic children, many of these children rarely have time of their own to play spontaneously. Much of their time is spent in therapies or planned activities that are meant to encourage or teach social skills. Frequently, parents, teachers and therapists plan social events or play dates for their children to get them to “practice” such skills. In many ways, it’s a wonder these children actually play at all because many of them exist in such “artificial” worlds. One thing I have observed that serves as a link between their realities and the bigger world may be their special interests.

Special interests – things or activities that are of major interest –frequently play an important role in the lives of autistic children. While most of my child collaborators were willing to play on just about any playground or interesting place, they also preferred places that accommodated games and activities of their own choosing (rather than someone else’s) that involved their special interests. These places do not always need to be programmed for certain activities. Sometimes they can be open space near programmed activities so that children who are not as interested in the primary activity can initiate their own games.

For example, Josh, who I featured in Part 6 of this blog, enjoys being current with football player statistics. He spends a good amount of time at home on his computer checking on favorite teams and players. At school, he discusses this with a group of friends who are also “in the know” on the subject. His parents indicated that in the fall, the school has a varsity football team that plays on Friday nights. During the home games, Josh and his statistic-loving friends get together to not only discuss football statistics but also play their own game of touch football on the sidelines. The simple provision of extra space along the sidelines that would not interfere with monitoring the football game or seating created an opportunity for these boys to do something more than talking about their special interest. The football game – a social event — coupled with the availability of the vacant space of the sideline, helped to provide an opportunity for this special activity for Josh and his friends.