architecture · autism · behavior · brain · design · environment · happiness · mental health · play

Researcher Designs Schoolyard for Children with Autism

Every kid can get overwhelmed playing on the playground. But imagine that for you, or your child, it happens way, way too easily.

Play is usually beneficial, not just for exercise and fun but for learning and therapy. So it’s interesting to see how people are using play, and playgrounds, to help kids who can often get overwhelmed in normal play situations.

A Kansas State University graduate student is creating a schoolyard that can become a therapeutic landscape for children with autism.

Chelsey King, master’s student in landscape architecture, St. Peters, Mo., is working with Katie Kingery-Page, assistant professor of landscape architecture, to envision a place where elementary school children with autism could feel comfortable and included.

“My main goal was to provide different opportunities for children with autism to be able to interact in their environment without being segregated from the rest of the school,” King said. “I didn’t want that separation to occur.”

The schoolyard can be an inviting place for children with autism, King said, if it provides several aspects: clear boundaries, a variety of activities and activity level spaces, places where the child can go when overstimulated, opportunities for a variety of sensory input without being overwhelming and a variety of ways to foster communication between peers.

“The biggest issue with traditional schoolyards is that they are completely open but also busy and crowded in specific areas,” King said. “This can be too overstimulating for a person with autism.”

King researched ways that she could create an environment where children with autism would be able to interact with their surroundings and their peers, but where they could also get away from overstimulation until they felt more comfortable and could re-enter the activities.

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For so long playgrounds have been designed to be “safe,” but now they’re being designed and adapted to be “inclusive” to kids with all sorts of limitations, which I think is a much better focus, especially since it reintroduces play equipment like…wait for it…dirt! Or more specifically, gardens:

King designed her schoolyard with both traditional aspects — such as a central play area — and additional elements that would appeal to children with autism, including:

  • A music garden where children can play with outdoor musical instruments to help with sensory aspects.
  • An edible garden/greenhouse that allows hands-on interaction with nature and opportunities for horticulture therapy.
  • A sensory playground, which uses different panels to help children build tolerances to difference sensory stimulation.
  • A butterfly garden to encourage nature-oriented learning in a quiet place.
  • A variety of alcoves, which provide children with a place to get away when they feel overwhelmed and want to regain control.

Unfortunately there are currently no plans to actually build this playground, since these sensory elements are beneficial to all kids (and grown-ups). Where do you see this kind of design being the most welcome? In schools, city parks? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.