Laying out your playground for children with autism

CozyCoonWhen designing an inclusive playground the layout of the space is crucial, particularly when part of the goal is to ensure children with autism can also find enjoyment.  Many children with autism are wary of new places and it can take a while for them to orient to new surroundings — which often means observing the activity from a distance.  Once the pursuit feels safe, children with autism are likely to engage in the activity.   The feeling of safety is enhanced when play spaces have a safe retreat that a child can access when an activity becomes too overwhelming.

It may be beneficial to hire a landscape architect who has extensive experience in designing inclusive spaces to help your planning group layout the ideal play environment.  The landscape architect will know how to use the topography of the land to best meet the needs of your community and will also know how to use landscaping to delineate between quiet and active areas as well as ensure that a line of sight is maintained.

Today I’m sharing three key layout considerations from Playworld Systems’ Inclusive Play Design Guide.  When these considerations are followed the result will be a playground that is more welcoming and “accessible” to children with autism:

  1. Plan on putting a fence around the playground.  An enclosure allows children to play freely without the risk of nearby dangers, such as traffic. This becomes particularly important in the case of children on the autism spectrum who may run away from stimulation.  Additionally, fences tend to have a calming effect for children on the autism spectrum as large spaces often say ‘run’ to them.
  2. Allow people to orient themselves to the playground without being thrust into the excitement of the activities and stimuli.  Similar to a foyer of a home or a lobby in an office, a playground entryway should allow people to acclimatize to the environment before they engage in activities.  The entrance should familiarize individuals with the playground layout, features, and activities.  An overview area will help minimize surprises, which can ignite a crisis for children on the autism spectrum. The entryway should have minimal visual and auditory stimuli.  Incorporating landscaping in this area can help create a soothing environment.
  3. The entryway should lead to the orientation path, which allows users to survey the play experiences prior to joining. The orientation path should be designed to go around the entire playground.  It allows users to assess the amount of physical and social contact they can reasonably expect in each part of the playground.  Children on the autism spectrum will benefit from a spatial arrangement that allows them to move back to the path, if their anxiety heightens.  They will still be able to see the activity, which may increase their confidence to re-enter the play.  The Inclusive Play Design Guide provides very specific strategies for designing an orientation path.

Another layout consideration your planning group will want to discuss is arranging pieces of playground equipment into specific zones.  Once zones are established they should then be separated through the use of paths and/or landscaping.  It’s also imperative that your community considers a  wayfinding system.  According the IDEA Center at the University of Buffalo, Wayfinding is the organization and communication of our dynamic relationship to space and the environment. Successful design to promote wayfinding allows people to: (1) determine their location within a setting, (2) determine their destination, and (3) develop a plan that will take them from their location to their destination.”

What challenges have you faced when designing an inclusive play space?

The authors of Inclusive Play Design Guide are in the process of putting weights on each intent. We encourage you to be a part of the process by completing our feedback survey.

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