Archive for September, 2011

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.

What Attracts You the Most in the Environment?

Friday, September 9th, 2011

My talk in two weeks at the Play for Life Symposium will be about how to engage people of all ages and abilities.

In the past four years of research, evaluating children’s environments from aquariums to zoos, I discuss eight things that are practically guaranteed to attract children.

I’d be interested in hearing from those of you who read my blog, however. I presume you are mostly adults and I haven’t observed what adults like in the environment.

So, the QUESTION: What single thing attracts you the most in the environment?

It doesn’t have to be just outdoor places. Ok, if you want to list more than one thing (many of us can’t make up our minds), go ahead. It would be great, however, if you could list them from Thing That Attracts Me Most to Thing That Attracts Me Least.

Also, what age group are you in?
1) 0 – 7
2) 8 – 12
3) 12 – 18
4) 18 – 36
5) 37 – 45
6) 46 – 55
7) 56 – 75
8) 76 and older!


The importance of touch in engaging children

Wednesday, September 7th, 2011

When landscape architects and architects design children’s environments, we usually start with the height of the child. Actually, we are starting from the eyes – the child’s view point. While this is a good start, ideally, we should be moving around at this level so we, the designers, can see what our users will be seeing! A number of years ago, I gave a talk at the annual meeting of the Pennsylvania/Delaware Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) where I demonstrated how we should be positioning ourselves as children. For kindergarten/early elementary school students’ perspective, I got down on my knees. To get the preschoolers’ perspective, I sat down on the floor. And, for toddlers’ perspective, I reclined on the floor and raised my head so it was about two feet off the ground.

As part of my post-occupancy evaluation of the Indoor Children’s Garden at Longwood Gardens, I created a series of behavioral maps which showed where children of various ages spent the majority of their time. These maps also included the activities in which the children were engaged. While the older children were in the Grotto Cave and Secret Room, the younger children spent most of their time on the Ramp or in the Central Cove.

From the archival drawings as well as through interviews, I learned that Tres Fromme, the designer of the garden, started all of his sketches by first drawing a child, then drawing the environment for that child. The children are 42 inches high in Tres’s drawings. This accounts for older children’s ease of access to the water in the Secret Room and the Grotto Cave.

When Tres Fromme designed these latter two areas, he also showed the 42-inch high child in his drawings. There was a difference between the two areas, however. Although he showed the drawing of the older child, he made the coping walls for the Ramp and Central Cove much lower and narrower which made these areas much more accessible to the younger children. It appeared that the real difference wasn’t the height of the children. It was their reach – or length of their arms – that mattered.

From this point on in my evaluations of other children’s environments, I started testing this hypothesis. Was it the height of the child or the length of the child’s reach that made the difference in how engaging a place became? What do you think? What have been your experiences?

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???