Research Design Connections
Studies examine playgrounds designed for autistic children,
what makes kids walk, and childhood experiences with nature.
By Sally Augustin
Landscape Architecture, in partnership with the web-based newsletter and daily blog Research Design Connections, uses
this column to report current research of interest to landscape architects from a wide array of disciplines. We welcome your comments,
suggestions about future topics, and studies you have encountered in your own practice.
Playground Design Can Boost
Social Play for Autistic Children
Children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) rarely play with other children because of a social disability associated with the
syndrome, but various studies have shown that certain places can exert a positive influence on their social behavior. Recent research
by Nicola Yuill and her colleagues demonstrates that playgrounds can be designed to increase play and other social interaction among
five- to seven-year-old boys with ASD.
These researchers have determined that outdoor spaces designed to physically challenge autistic children, provide them with the
opportunity to observe others, and support structured, imaginative games can positively influence their social play. The researchers
observed the same set of autistic boys playing in two playgrounds, one of which they designed for the experiment, and noted differences
in their social behaviors in the two settings.
The researchers observed behaviors on playgrounds because “[t]he playground is an important context for social development and can
facilitate social play and peer interaction of many types...[which] can foster the development of social cognitive skills, peer acceptance,
and the many social and intellectual benefits associated with acceptance,” they wrote. Previous research relating playground design to play
cannot be applied to children with ASD because they do not play under the same conditions as other children.
The autistic children were originally observed on a playground with a central structure for climbing and sliding and portable play
equipment (such as balls) that changed from day to day. This playground was adjacent to the special school the children attended. The new
playground, designed by a teacher, was also located adjacent to the school and was slightly smaller than the original playground.
The original playground contained 16.5 square meters of space per child, as opposed to 6.9 square meters of space per child in the
The designs of the two playgrounds also differed significantly. The new playground contained a slide, climbing wall, and tower that
required special physical effort by the children; the original playground’s equipment had been easier to use. The researchers made this change
“to engage the children in object-oriented physical activity rather than solitary or self-directed activity.”
The new playground design also supported imaginative play by furnishing simple, stable props. Autistic children do not respond well to changes
in routine, so the props were chosen with this in mind. They generally related to trains, a theme that the children enjoyed, and included
a circular railroad track with road-crossing points. The new playground was laid out as a play circuit in which the track comprised one
series of activities, and the slide was curved so that it directed children on to another activity.
Because children with ASD need to take breaks in social interaction, the new playground included an observation tower large enough to
accommodate one child and a vertical board with a hole at head height that could shield a child from view while he watched other children
Group play, which the researchers define as interacting “substantially with one or more other children, visually, through conversation
or in the organization of a game,” increased significantly in the new playground, while solitary play (“no companion in group or parallel
play”) decreased significantly. Based on their observations, the researchers concluded that the layout of the new playground provided
the appropriate level of structure and challenge for the children’s activities and inspiration for imaginative play.
- “Designing a Playground for Children with Autistic Spectrum Disorders: Effects on Playful Peer Interactions,” by Nicola Yuill,
Sara Strieth, Caroline Roake, Ruth Aspden, and Brenda Todd; Journal of Autism Development Disorders, vol. 37, no. 6, 2007.
Walk This Way—or Not
Many studies have examined the relationship between urban design and walking among adults, but until recently, the topic has not
been fully explored with children. A new study looks at how demographic factors interact with features of the urban environment to determine
the likelihood that American youths will walk as opposed to drive or be driven. Many studies have probed the relationship between
urban design and walking among adults, but the topic has not been fully explored with children. With obesity now affecting more and
more children, understanding how and why they get from one place to another can form a basis for new strategies to increase exercise.
Researchers asked more than 3,000 five- to 18-year-olds in Atlanta to record their travel data for two days, including the locations
they visited, how they got there, the reason for each trip, and the time of day they made each trip. (The days of the week were
evenly represented over the entire sample.) Additional background information, such as demographic data about the family, was collected
from the head of each young person’s household.
Boys and girls were equally represented in the sample. Nonwhites were significantly more likely to walk than whites (17.5 percent
versus 11.9 percent, respectively).
Financial demographics play a striking role. Children from families with incomes below $30,000, for example, were significantly more
likely to walk (25.2 percent) than children from households with incomes of $60,000 or greater (11.2 percent). “Urban form was not
as significantly related to walking for nonwhites, low-income groups, and those with no car in the household,” the researchers found.
As it turns out, this study affirmed that children walk for many of the same reasons that adults do—to get to a place they want to
play, relax, or be with other people. In most cases, the data showed that access to recreation space and living in an area with a mix
of land uses—residential, commercial, and open space—were the factors that most often prompted the young people to walk.
- “Urban Form Correlates of Pedestrian Travel in Youth: Differences
by Gender, Race-Ethnicity and Household Attributes,” by Jacqueline
Kerr; Lawrence Frank, Affiliate ASLA; James Sallis; and Jim Chapman;
Transportation Research, Part D, vol. 12, 2007.
Adult Visits to Green Places Echo Childhood Experiences
Children who visit green places—parks, woodlands, and other natural
areas—more often than their peers will continue this pattern as
they get older, enhancing their health and well-being as a result.
This is the conclusion of a study by Catharine Ward Thompson and
her fellow researchers.
After analyzing data gathered in focus groups and surveys conducted
in Scotland and England, the researchers reported that “[f]requency
of childhood visits is associated with aspects of healthy activity,
emotional engagement with natural or green places, ease of access,
and confidence to visit [green] places alone [as adults].” People
who did not regularly visit green spaces as children will not reap
the physical and emotional benefits of nature in adulthood, the
researchers say, because they are less likely to visit green spaces
by a factor of 6 to 1 than adults who had regular contact with such
places during childhood. Adults who have had such experiences early
in life also are more “open to positive and elemental experiences
in these [green] places” than those who did not have the same amount
of childhood contact with nature.
The researchers point out that children today are playing less
frequently in natural places and pose the question, “When they become
adults, will most feel much less comfortable walking alone in woodlands
or green spaces or even visiting them at all, and will this, in
turn, be reflected in lower levels of physical activity?” They observe
that if this is the case, the impact “may be as significant for
mental as for physical health.”
- “The Childhood Factor: Adult Visits to Green Places and the
Significance of Childhood Experience,” by Catharine Ward Thompson,
Peter Aspinall, and Alicia Montarzino; Environment and Behavior,
vol. 40, no. 1, 2008.
Sally Augustin, RDC’s senior editor, is an environmental psychologist.
Research Design Connections is a subscription-based newsletter,
blog, and web site (www.ResearchDesignConnections.com)
providing current information on people and place research. RDC
explores the ways physical environments can be designed to reduce
stress, increase creativity, improve health, increase safety, and
support people’s welfare. To emphasize the link between current
research and design solutions, RDC gathers information from hard-to-access
academic sources and presents it in straightforward prose, tables,
and photos. RDC is published in print and online four times a year.
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