Play “Therapy”: Kansas State Graduate Student’s Autism-Friendly Schoolyard

May 10, 2012

Play “Therapy”: Kansas State Graduate Student’s Autism-Friendly Schoolyard

Parents, teachers, and friends of children with autism see the challenges they experience every day. They know that environmental factors like light, sound, and crowds that would be ignored by neuro-typical children and adults can cause massive upset for autistic children. The result leaves those in charge of autistic children in a state of constant alert. But what if a place existed that was designed to anticipate these challenges even before they came up? What if this place was equally accessible and stimulating to non-autistic children? What if this place was at school? With these questions in mind, Kansas State landscape architecture graduate student Chelsey King began a journey to design a schoolyard playground for autistic children based on the area available at a local magnet school in Manhattan, KS. Her results have recently been presented at the Kansas State Research forum and are titled: “Therapeutic Schoolyard: Design for Autism Spectrum Disorder.” This study, along with the amazing images and design plan that accompany it, is a really worthwhile read for anyone involved with autistic children. The Premise King’s research is based on a figure well-known to readers of CW: the recent CDC report that 1 in 88 children have been diagnosed with some form of autism spectrum disorder. This epidemic struck a chord with King and her research advisor Katie Kingery-Page. King began her research and design focusing on the importance of play in all children’s lives. She states, “Recess in elementary schools provide children with time to play outside, but many of the playgrounds are not engaging to students, lacking elements that would provide them with opportunities to experience nature and limiting imagination” (King, 2012, p. 10). However, the additional challenges presented to autistic children and their caregivers added another element to King’s design. In order to address this epidemic along with her interests in outdoor play space, the primary research question was as follows: How can similar benefits of therapeutic landscapes be achieved in a schoolyard in order to go beyond meeting the requirements for most children to include and benefit those children with autism? Through research, collaboration with special education teachers, and her design experience as an architecture student, the results of King’s project are truly amazing. The Schoolyard King describes her main goal with this project as presenting a play space that would integrate autistic children’s play with their neuro-typical counterparts, yet still allow for elective separation to occur should the autistic children get overwhelmed. The main design still featured a central play area common to most playgrounds, but, in addition, added elements that would specifically target the needs of autistic children. This included:
  • The Music Garden – here outdoor-ready instruments allowed independent and group play as well as sensory stimulation.
  • The Greenhouse – this additional element that features edible plants would help children to interact with nature as well as horticultural therapy.
  • The Sensory Playground – this featured typical playground equipment as well as modified versions of that equipment designed to promote gross motor skills and social interaction.
  • Alcoves – because autistic children can experience sensory overload much faster and more frequently than neuro-typical children, providing them ready-made spaces to use for observation or elective isolation can help to quell overstimulation.
Additional areas such as a ball court, quiet garden, butterfly garden, and outdoor classroom space provide added opportunities for both autistic children, neuro-typical children and their teachers and caregivers options in terms of activities and space for learning and fun. Implications Though the schoolyard designed by King only exists in documentation form and there is no plans to build it, the ideas and designs she displays are well worth consideration for any school or community interested in designing an outdoor space for children – whether autistic or not. More than anything, the images and plans in King’s report are worth reviewing. In a perfect world, play spaces like this would exist in every community and at every school.



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