Archive for the ‘Natural Playground’ Category

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!

Autism and Landscape Architecture Month — Part V: Balance

Thursday, April 7th, 2011

Today, I’d like to discuss balance.

In Sensory Integration Dysfunction literature, such things as physical balance are referred to under the vestibular system. Things like being able to walk on a curb, skip, jump, turn a cartwheel, ride a bike, etc. , all require some balance and physical coordination. The American Psychiatric Association, who publishes the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) used by doctors for diagnoses (and is the bible, of sorts, for American insurance companies to determine what they will cover on policies) indicates that a lack of coordination may be one of the symptoms for diagnosing autistic children. Occupational therapists, however, would include it as Sensory Integration Dysfunction, which they argue is a separate issue from autism. It may, like attention deficit disorder (ADD) and other conditions, be “co-morbid. ” This sounds pretty grim, but this term is used by the medical profession to mean that multiple disorders can be present in one person. Currently, the DSM doesn’t recognize Sensory Integration Dysfunction as a “true” disorder until sufficient scientific testing has proven this to be the case.

What does balance, then, have to do with autism and landscape architecture, you are probably wondering? (Why doesn’t she just get to the point???) Well, as the DSM notes, the lack of physical coordination – or balance, to some degree – is sometimes experienced by autistic people. Early in the lives of autistic children, they are recognized by their peers as having coordination problems and are frequently teased about it. Further, autistic children (as well as children who have vestibular problems, but are not autistic) may shy away from play equipment on the school playground.

What do they do during their recess if they aren’t playing on the equipment?

In my playground observations, I’ve seen some children (who aren’t playing on the equipment) usually sitting by themselves, walking around the playground, or sitting with the teachers. If there are natural features on the site, I’ve seen children collecting leaves, touching plants, digging in mulch and otherwise exploring the natural environment. These are not as “physical” activities as climbing, swinging, etc., but they are forms of engagement and connection to both the imaginary, as well as physical, world. This form of play is actually more highly developed, cognitively, than the exercise of big muscles used on the traditional playground!

I’d like to discuss the role of the natural environment, but think I should do this tomorrow when I have more time and space. I’d like to hear from those of you reading this – and I’ll bet so would other readers! If you have children, what have your observations been regarding how your children play outdoors? If your children have coordination, or balance problems, what do they do?

If the comment box isn’t visible, click on the words: No Comments and a comment box will open. Let’s start talking about this together!

Autism and Landscape Architecture Month, Part IV

Wednesday, April 6th, 2011

I have not learned which sensory issues are the most prevalent in autistic children — the research in the field of Occupational Therapy is still on-going — but from those children I’ve spoken with, noise is the first they speak about. Light, or glare from light, however, is one issue that their parents comment about.

As we watched her son play on a neighbor’s covered porch, a mother from Philly commented that she had to go to bat with the local school system because of her son’s problems with bright lights and colors. His desk sat on a brightly-colored carpet near the sunny windows. He would refuse to sit at the desk, even when the blinds were drawn. At home, his mother discovered that her son’s issues with bright lights and colors made him miserable, so she kept the lights dimmed. Together, she and her son decorated his bedroom with camouflage colors and put up heavy curtains to cut down on the light. When she spoke with her son’s teacher about the glare issue, they were able to move his school desk off of the rug and out of the bright light. Without this distraction/barrier, he became an attentive student.

Shirley Cohen, Ph.D., one of the creators of the ASD (Austism Spectrum Disorders) NEST Program in NYC, develops programs in the curriculum for autistic students with the team of professionals. Occupational therapists working on the NEST modify the classroom environment to accommodate the sensory needs of the children, as they’ve found that the children learn more easily and successfully when sensory barriers are removed. This tactic is not reserved to just the NEST program. Cohen confided, in a journal article, that they had implemented this aspect from other programs that demonstrated success, such as TEACHH (Treatment and Education of Autistic and Related Communication Handicapped Children).

It is interesting, however, that schools (and even these successful programs) take into consideration the classroom environment but NOT the outdoors, such as the playground. Playgrounds are still constructed in full sunlight, and outfitted with hardly any shade. One boy, from Levittown, told me that even though he wanted to play on the neighborhood playground, it was just too hot. “I feel bad,” he said, after we had been crawling through the hot, plastic tubes to the sliding boards. His mother added that, in the summer, she kept her son inside most of the time because of the heat and glare. “He gets so red in the face after just a few minutes.” The playground had a wooded lot next to it, so that later in the day, there was some shade. However, this occurred at the heat of the day when the play equipment got too hot to play on.

In an effort to help a local PTO install a small raised garden next to the school playground, I observed how children moved around in the area. The school board had dismissed an idea for putting the garden closer to the school, near the basketball court, because the basketball court was heavily used and the children might damage it during play. During my observations, I noticed that the only tree on the playground was located next to the basketball court. Children did, indeed, run out of the school to that area, but they didn’t play basketball. They were all standing in the shade of the lone tree. Other children lined up against the hot building, but under the overhanging roof. “Why are you standing here?” I asked them. “To be in the shade,” was their reply. “It’s too hot to play out there,” one boy added, pointing to the vacant playground.

So, we’ve come a long way. We spend thousands of dollars to erect bright, colorful playgrounds in what used to be vacant lots, old asphalt parking lots, or former cornfields. Despite this, the playgrounds are not as well used as they could — or should — be because of the glare and lack of shade.

Next: Balance.

Autism and Landscape Architecture Month, Part III

Tuesday, April 5th, 2011

Yesterday, I wrote about some of the benefits of using plants on playgrounds: as a noise buffer, a way to attract wildlife, creating shade, and as a way to create a small area or niche. Today, I’d like to call attention to this idea of niche for autistic children as well as for all people.

The Dictionary defines niche as 1) an ornamental recess in a wall or the like, usually semicircular in plan and arched, as for a statue or other decorative object. 2) a place or position suitable or appropriate for a person or thing: to find one’s niche in the business world. 3) a distinct segment of a market; and 4) Ecology . the position or function of an organism in a community of plants and animals. The word comes from the French (17th century), referring to nest. My idea of niche comes closest to this original idea of nest.

Over the past two years, I’ve been visiting children’s environments. One of the things I’ve been able to do is measure those places that have successfully engaged children (of all abilities). One of these types of places is the niche — a small, enclosed area that can fit one to three people snugly. Many of the autistic children I’ve interviewed have such niches in their houses or gardens. One boy sleeps in a small tent on his bed — says he feels better when he can see the edges of the tent. The same boy enjoyed small cut-out areas in vegetation when we visited public gardens: in rhododendron thickets at Tyler Arboretum, in the Bamboo Grove in the Indoor Children’s Garden at Longwood Gardens, and along the edge of his garden at home where he can fit his body into the niches of the big trees there.

He’s not the only one. The Please Touch Museum has recognized the need for pull-away places and has made small areas within the museum, including special quiet rooms, as retreats for children and their families when things get too stimulating. Noise, glare, bright colors, insistent aromas and textures, not to mention crowding are the some of the things that cause autistic children to “melt down” in public places. Providing quiet pull-away places, or niches, is a way to help people (yes, this happens to adults, too!) to calm down.

Next: Glare.

April is Autism and Landscape Architecture Month, Part II

Monday, April 4th, 2011

Yesterday, I wrote about noise sensitivity problems and said I would write about how this problem affects the use of playgrounds (and other outdoor environments as well).

A few years ago, Amy Ritter and I observed children at a day camp. When the activities took place in the outdoor playing field, which was next to a highway (without any noise barriers), a few of the children not only stopped participating but covered their ears and started crying. This didn’t happen in quieter areas of the grounds, however.

The use of sound barriers does work. These don’t have to be concrete or wood fences, however. Some of the most effective are planted buffers. The plants, if chosen carefully, can also attract wildlife and foster engagement in children. Robin Moore, a professor at NC State University, has written extensively on how “natural playgrounds” — using plants to teach and engage children in the environment — are more valuable to educating children than traditional play equipment alone playgrounds. My own observations of children’s environments has found that when playgrounds are designed to take into consideration the scale of the children, providing shade, and drawing in wildlife such as birds and insects, these playgrounds fascinate children of all abilities and help connect them with nature and natural processes. These playground don’t cut down on physical activity; instead, they go the extra mile in engaging those children who don’t or can’t spend time on the play equipment (more on this later this month).

This past fall, I observed children at play at a school playground. Instead of playing on the new playground equipment, a small group of kindergartners were sitting behind a cluster of shrubs, digging in the mulch. One girl shouted when she discovered a grub and, as if from nowhere, the other children came to look at her find! One of the boys in the cluster also commented that he had seen a cardinal (bird) in the neighbor’s yard when he was sitting behind the shrubs. “It’s a good place to find things,” he confided. The teacher noted that this was one of the children’s favorite places in good weather. The area between the shrubs and the chain link fence on the property line provided enough room for five or six small children to play with each other. This form of play, according to developmental psychologists, fosters more advanced mental and social growth than the gross motor skill development found in traditional play equipment. I am not advising that we get rid of play equipment; however, just advocating for other types of environments that promote more advanced AND inclusive forms of play.

Next: Places to get away from noise.