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!