Archive for the ‘Inclusive Play’ 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 …

Play For Life: Accessing the World

Thursday, September 29th, 2011

Years ago, when I met Tim Denny, the Director of Parks and Recreation for Haverford Township, PA, he discussed the inclusive Merry Place park and how it got started as a place where people of all abilities could “play” together. To sum up his story about this remarkable place and the importance of universal design in our lives, he concluded with, “After all, we are only temporarily able!” This thought kept resurfacing throughout the Play For Life Symposium held in Minnetonka, MN, this past week.

The Symposium open with Muffy and Jeff Davis, an extraordinary couple. In 1989, as a young Olympic trainee in skiing, Muffy Davis’s life changed when she crashed into a tree and suffered spinal injuries that left her paralyzed from the waist down. Not one to give up, she focused on academics and graduated from Stanford University. In 1998, she took the bronze medal while on the US Disabled Ski Team competing in the 1998 Paralympics in Nagano Japan. Today she is a member of the US Paralympic Cycling Team, a wife, a mother of an almost-three year old daughter, and founder of Access the World. The Play for Life Symposium opened with a video made by Muffy and her husband, Jeff, of their journey around the world as ambassadors for inclusivity. While the video showcased the organizations in developing countries that were furthering the cause of inclusivity, the couple provided insight into the difficulties of travel outside of the modern world.

Some of the biggest problems: sidewalks or streets were not accessible; the cities (or villages) provided access only by stairs, not ramps; wheelchairs were too wide to access lavatories/rest rooms; and transportation methods, such as taxis in pre-Olympic China, did not stop for handicapped people.

The couple recommended that those countries and cities with the best accommodations were recent Olympic sites and big modern cities. Developing countries and historic old cities frequently have problems, especially with accessible toilets and transportation. Their recommendations: if you have disabilities and need to (or would like to) travel, you need to become a good planner, be flexible, and select your destinations carefully. Bring your own assistive devices and carry all your medical supplies with you (but don’t label them as such because that will carry a high fee). Be ready for anything and, above all, have a good attitude.

A few minutes later, Billy McLaughlin got up to play his guitar. Unlike most acoustic guitar players, McLaughlin doesn’t strum his instrument; he plays it up on the neck. This style made him famous back in the 1980s when he rose up the charts in New Age music and was offered recording contracts by Wyndham Hill Productions. Then, two of his fingers stopped functioning. Doctors said this was a neuromuscular disease called focal dystonia. Within five years, McLaughlin’s world fell apart –unable to play the guitar, he lost his record contract, his gigs, and even his marriage. Yet, his passion for playing guitar would not let up. After hearing poor medical prognoses about his recovery, he evaluated what still worked – his other 8 fingers – and began playing the guitar with his left, instead of right, hand. The change took him years to master – “I had to start all over again as a beginner,” he confessed, “and this was perhaps a bigger obstacle. But it was not nearly as bad as never playing again.” Then McLaughlin treated us to more of his musical magic and Tim Denny’s words pop up in my head, ”We are only temporarily able…”

Think about all the people you know – from your elderly parents or grandparents to toddlers and infants, to your spouse or friend who pulled a muscle or needs new glasses or has gluten intolerance – and you realize that we all have difficulties in the physical environment. It’s not just about the nameless faces on disability television commercials or billboards! It’s about US – all of us! Our need for interdependence as well as independence shows us the importance of universal design.

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:
http://health.usnews.com/health-news/family-health/brain-and-behavior/articles/2011/03/24/dangerous-wandering-a-lesser-known-side-of-autism

The National Autism Association has a safety toolkit on autism and wandering: http://www.nationalautismassociation.org/safetytoolkit.php

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 cakrawczyk@verizon.net! Thanks!

Autism and Landscape Architecture Month, Part X: Affordances in the Physical Environment

Thursday, April 14th, 2011

In my discussions with autistic children (child collaborators), together with their parents, I’ve learned that the more opportunities a place has for people, the greater the chance people will visit it. Duh! (This is a researcher’s term! We say it to ourselves all the time when reading journal articles.) And, yet, with regard to children’s environments, we still design places that are single-type uses. For example, there is a big push for storybook exhibits for children’s museums. While the sculpted settings are fun to look at, you can’t crawl on them. There are also too few opportunities to read the actual books. Even at Philadelphia’s Please Touch Museum, their Alice and Wonderland maze has children crawling all over the walls while signs say, “Do not climb”. Or playgrounds that provide only play equipment but no places to hide or passively watch the world.

Two of the children in my group of child collaborators are brother and sister, both autistics. However, this is where the family similarities stop. The brother has hypo-sensitivities towards noise, glare, lateral movements and heights; the sister is more of a “sensory seeker” who loves to be challenged by sensations. The brother loves everything dinosaur and could spend the day (and overnight) in a dinosaur museum. The sister, who has spent her entire life in dinosaur museums (because of her brother), vastly prefers any place else; she especially enjoys places with live animals. After her divorce, their mother found that it was difficult, if not impossible, to accommodate both children’s needs in typical children’s environments. If only we could have both (environments) in one place!

Here’s where the theory of affordances comes into play! Fifty or so years ago, Dr. James Jerome Gibson wrote about how creatures perceived of their physical environment. Using their senses, each creature does a quick study of the environment to determine its affordances – what the environment can afford, or offer. If I am thirsty, and looking for water, I will look for features that suggest the presence of water: vegetation associated with rivers, streams or ponds, etc.; certain geological features for waterfalls or low-lying areas that suggest lakes or ponds. If I were in the city, I would look for signs that would direct me to a water fountain, soda machine, restaurant or bar.

Perhaps a better example is this: the brother and sister, who I had previously mentioned, walk into a public garden and look around. The sister spies a pond with fish and then spends time watching the fish, touching the water, gazing at the clouds reflected in the water. The brother spots a rock wall (which happens to be supporting a terraced garden) with bits of fossils in them and spends his time identifying the fossils. The walk further into the garden and see a large tree. To one of the children, the tree provides a shady refuge from the glaring sun; to the other child, it is a veritable monkey-bar-like climbing paradise! Other creatures have also gravitated towards the tree as well: a bird makes its nest in the protection of its clustered branches; a beetle crawls into a broken piece of bark, looking for shelter and food; a sapsucker notices the break in the bark as well and pecks away at it in search of a meal (the beetle). The one thing – the tree – affords a multitude of uses for different creatures. The more affordances that a single thing provides make it more popular as a place or activity! Perhaps, by grouping things, that each has their own cluster of affordances, we create a place of diversity that can be enjoyed by a diverse group of individuals. In my interviews with my 15 child collaborators, the majority of their favorite environments had, in addition to the children’s preferred activities, so many more uses as well.

Next: Affordances meets social skill development

Autism and Landscape Architecture Month, Part IX: Play for All

Wednesday, April 13th, 2011

While I have been describing sensory issues and links to the physical environment, there are people out there who have actually been doing things about these issues. Ingrid M. Kanics, OTR/L, an Occupational Therapist and play advocate, has been speaking at conferences about inclusive play. I first learned about her at the Annual Meeting of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) in Washington, DC, last September when she presented “A Higher Level of Inclusion: Trends in Playground Design.” There she showed examples of play equipment that was not only directed towards the main population of children but, finally, towards those children whose sensitivities ranged from hypo (too sensitive) to hyper (not sensitive enough). Kanics pointed out that this latter group, while small in size compared to the entire population of children, had sensitivities that prevented them from playing on typical playgrounds, never mind playing with other children. By providing equipment that supported children of all abilities, Kanics maintained, we support play for children of all abilities.

Interestingly, members of the audience began to ask whether such play equipment could support therapies for older children and adults, especially older people with developmental delays who need different forms of physical exercise from their peers. While playground manufacturers have not been marketing in this area, representatives from Landscape Structures, the company that has been sponsoring research in play structures for disabled people, indicated that they are looking at this issue as well.

Links:

Ingrid M. Kanic’s powerpoint handout (accessed April 13, 2011 from the Internet):

http://www.asla.org/uploadedFiles/CMS/Meetings_and_Events/2010_Annual_Meeting_Handouts/Fri-B9%20A%20Higher%20Level%20of%20Inclusion%20-%20Trends%20in%20Playground%20Design.pdf

Other Kanic articles:

http://www.devdelay.org/newsletter/articles/html/265-making-sense-of-summer-camp.html

Landscape Structures’ Advisory Committee:

http://www.playlsi.com/Explore-Products/Universally-Accessible-Playgrounds/Inclusive-Play-Advisory-Board/Pages/Inclusive-Play-Advisory-Board.aspx

Blogs that discuss Kanic’s work and sensory issues:

http://www.thebeakerkids.com/inclusion-strategies/

http://www.rollingrains.com/travelogues/2010/10/why-i-have-confidence-in-landscape-structures-inc-and-their-consultant-ingrid-kanics.html

Next: Affordances in the Physical Environment