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April 2008 Issue

Research Design Connections
Studies examine playgrounds designed for autistic children, what makes kids walk, and childhood experiences with nature.

By Sally Augustin

Rsearch Design Connections William Brown

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 new one.

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 play.

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 ( 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. Members of ASLA can subscribe at a 20 percent savings. For more information or to subscribe, go to

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