Archive for the ‘Nature’ Category

May is Gardening for Wildlife Month: Aerialist Ground Hogs

Monday, May 16th, 2011

Our aerialist ground hog

I’ve been out in the garden, trying to dig up the weeds and plant the vegetable garden. So, I haven’t been writing here in the blog room until now.
The National Wildlife Federation has mentioned that this is gardening for wildlife month and we certainly try to do that. Just the other day, I brought back little jewels of flowers (Phlox divericata) for a niche in the front yard. The following day, when I went to water the potted plant before planting it, I noticed that the flowers had been EATEN by one of my wildlife tenants. Probable lineup of prospects: rabbit or ground hog.

Last year, our resident ground hog gave birth to twin hoglets. Late one morning, the indoor cats were making a fuss at the window that looked out onto our porch. Two small hoglets were running around on the porch, sniffing the seedlings that I put there (to keep away from the rabbit and ground hog). They proceeded to eat most of my brassicas (cabbage family plants), as well as my tomatillos and lettuces last summer. I found that they didn’t seem to bother my Bull’s Blood Beets, tomatoes and red peppers. Other friends, however, have commented that their ground hog eats red things (I was hoping this was a pattern).

So, I had decided to erect a fence around the vegetable garden this spring…that is, until my son spotted one of the ground hogs up in a tree that hangs over the vegetable patch! My thought: why waste the money for a fence when the ground hog can jump over it? I’d not heard of aerialist ground hogs, but I think this must be one of the babies (now grown) who can climb stairs, walls and now trees.

I think this type of ground hog is pretty innovative and sort of like that it lives in my garden. So, this year, I’m planting for my family and the ground hogs. I’ll let you know what mine eats…

If you have ground hog experiences, I’d love some advice!

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 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 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

Autism and Landscape Architecture Month, Part VIII: Crowding

Tuesday, April 12th, 2011

Jared, 4 years of age, wasn’t your typical child, his mother told me. “He was never found playing with blocks, or sitting down, painting or the other quiet stuff he could never get through because he didn’t have his fill of the physical stuff.”

For kids like Jared, growing up in Brooklyn, the place to play was a neighborhood park 20 minutes walking distance from his mother’s NYC apartment. This was also his very favorite place, according to his mother. “Here’s what has always been the rub: It’s his favorite place where he could get his energy out. But it’s also where the noise, and definitely the proximity of kids – a New York City playground on a May afternoon, for a kid with sensory issues – it’s a nightmare!”

Jared loved playing in the sandbox, especially the sensory nature of its texture and feel. He’d roll around in the sand as well as play with it. But, according to his mother, he could not handle the sensory overload of too many kids bumping into him or the noise of their shrieks and giggles. Fortunately for Jared, he was enrolled in a pre-school that provided various forms of therapies: sensory integration, art, music and horticulture. There, he was able to get his fill of physical activity in a quiet setting. His mother was also befriended by other mothers who were looking for less crowded and noisy settings such as the trails in Prospect Park. There, Jared took opportunities to lead the small group of children off the path to explore some of the wooded places, under the careful supervision of the parents.

Jared’s mother indicated that the neighborhood playground was being redesigned. She wished there was a way to change places like the sandbox so that it wouldn’t be so crowded. Teardrop Park, in Battery Park City, broke the tradition of having small, controllable areas for sandboxes. Sand tends to attract animals, especially cats that use the sand as a litter box. At Teardrop Park, however, the sand is placed in a long, linear area that tends to do away with the congestion of small, noisy bodies. This configuration might be just the thing to stop the clash of the tiny titans on public playgrounds!

Next: Finding just the right form of sensory play

Autism and Landscape Architecture Month, VI: Balance and Nature

Friday, April 8th, 2011

When I sent out my call for participants for my research project, parents with autistic children contacted me by email, first locally, then throughout the country, thanks to Jenifer Westphal’s posting on her Kyle’s Treehouse website. My first non-local contact was a couple from Ohio. They were particularly interested in my study on autism and the outdoor environment because they were discovering that their son, Josh, seemed to change his behavior when he was in natural settings.

Josh’s parents discussed their son’s daily schedule, his difficulty focusing on homework, and his inability to be focused and calm when inside, at home. They also noted that he wasn’t a particularly coordinated child but, despite this, he loved to go hiking in the parks near their home. As we discussed the character of the different places where Josh liked to go hiking – from the wild rocky gorges in southern Ohio to hills with desert flora outside of Phoenix, Arizona, to Butterfly World and wetland preserves in Florida – what they all had in common was nature.

What did he do in these natural settings? Well, before he would go hiking, his mother told me, he would read up on the place, learning what he could about its features, history, and anything else of interest. He’d spend hours pouring over maps, looking at trails and where they would go on contour maps. His father, who would go hiking with him, indicated that despite his less than athletic build, Josh was an amazing hiker. He would walk for three hours up a hill, rest for a bit, then continue up to the pinnacle without wanting to turn back. All along the way, he’d comment on the features of the trail, animals he’d see, interesting plants, etc. His special interest, of reading the tour books and maps, fueled his interest in places. Even more importantly, the natural environment became the bridge or setting where he could discuss these things he read about with his fellow hikers. The combination of research and seeing the place first-hand gave Josh confidence to discuss his discoveries with his parents, other family members and, finally, school friends. Furthermore, the environment fueled his stamina, motivating him to hike for hours. He built up his muscles and strength in pursuit of what was around the corner.

Yes, this is just one example of one autistic child whose parents saw how nature made a difference in his life. For families with autistic children, however, this example could be used to motivate them to form walking or hiking groups, or special scouting troops, as a way to encourage physical fitness and engagement in nature. Josh’s father commented on the importance of interpretive signs in the parks and trails. I have observed similar cases where autistic children, walking in botanic gardens during summer camp, have stopped to read the signs without guidance from their camp counselors. Designers of parks and trails should try, whenever possible, to include such signage in their designs. Further, with new phone applications becoming available every day, placing these where they do not detract from the natural experience will still add to the interpretive experience!