Archive for the ‘Theory of Affordances’ Category

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.

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.

Autism and Landscape Architecture Month, Part XI: Affordances meets social skill development

Tuesday, April 19th, 2011

Physical environments that provide a range of affordances for children also provide opportunities for children to gather together in search of common activities and, possibly, common engagement and friendship.

Awhile back, I installed a small pond at my home to engage my son in the natural environment. I had observed that he enjoyed watching wildlife and I was keen on attracting frogs and other aquatic life into our garden. The pond soon became the place for the annual mating ritual of American toads each spring. Matthew reported on the amount of toads in the pond each day, and later how many tadpoles took residence there as well. Later that spring, we invited other children over for various play dates. Instead of doing indoor things, however, Matthew and the other children were found playing by the pond, dipping their hands into the water to touch the tadpoles. Matthew and the tadpoles became pretty popular with the other kids that spring and summer, but even as the tadpoles grew into toads and left the pond, the children still came over to play with Matthew and spend time by the pond. The children marveled when they dropped water onto the lotus leaves and the droplets turned into silver beads. Tiny, multicolored goldfish darted under the profusion of water lilies and duck potato – inviting the kids to search more intently for them. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that, despite their attention problems, many of the children stayed by the pond for at least an hour, talking, sharing stories, and investigating the depths of the pond.

It’s been over four years since the toads moved in, and Matthew is now a teenager. Yet, when his friends still come over, they get Matthew and the first place they all head for is the pond.

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