“Outdoor Environments for Children with Autism & Special Needs” in InformeDesign’s ‘Implications’

April Implications 2011 'Outdoor Environments for Children with Autism and Special Needs' by Naomi Sachs and Tara VincentaHot off the press! InformeDesign’s latest issue of Implications (Vol. 9, Issue 1) just went live today, and it features an article by Naomi Sachs and Tara Vincenta, “Outdoor Environments for Children with Autism and Special Needs.” I mentioned this article in my April 13th blog post about Autism Awareness and Landscape Architecture month, but it had not come out yet.

So take a look by linking to the pdf here:


And here is the resource list on autism and related disorders and children and nature mentioned in the article , which will also soon be available for download from the TLN Get Out and Play! page:
PDF of resources on autism and nature-based learning and play for InformeDesign’s ‘Implications’ (Vol. 9, Issue 1)

Tara Vincenta developed the Sequential Outdoor Learning (SOL) Environment and many of the design guidelines in our article are based on SOL Environment principles.

Many thanks to InformeDesign for giving me and Tara this platform to share our work. InformeDesign is an evidence-based design tool that transforms research into an easy-to-read, easy-to-use format for architects, graphic designers, housing specialists, interior designers, landscape architects, and the public. They are, in my humble opinion, one of the best resources out there.

And if you know of people who would benefit from the information in this post, please pass it on!


April: Autism Awareness & Landscape Architecture Month

Lilac buds. Photo by Naomi Sachs

April lilac buds. Photo by Naomi Sachs

April is both Autism Awareness and Landscape Architecture Month, so it seems fitting to do a blog post about the intersection of Autism and the way that the natural world can help people of all abilities. There isn’t a whole lot of research specifically on how interaction with nature affects people with Autism, but we’re getting there, and the TLN is glad to be able to share what resources we do know about. See the attached pdf at the end of this post, as well as our Get Out and Play! page. If you have any that aren’t on our list, please let me know!

In addition, for Autism Awareness Month:

Carol Krawczyk has been writing a series of articles on her blog, The Engagement Zone: How people engage with the environment. Carol has also written a (not yet published) TLN Blog guest post, so be on the lookout for that.

And Tara Vincenta and I have just finished an article based on last year’s KaBOOM! webinar, “Prescription for Play: Nature-based Learning and Play for Children with Autism and Other Special Needs.” The article will be published in the next issue of Implications, InformeDesign’s newsletter. If you don’t yet know about InformeDesign, now you do, and your world is now a better place. InformeDesign is one of the best resources for anyone interested in the intersection of research and design – in other words, a treasure trove for evidence-based design (EBD). To get to the original webinar, go to KaBOOM’s Hot Topics in Play page and scroll down to the one with the above title (“Prescription for Play: Nature-Based…”). They have produced many other great webinars since, so you’ll need to scroll down a ways. Tara Vincenta is Principal at Artemis Landscape Architects and is also creator of the Sequential Learning Outdoor (SOL) Environment. A Sequential Outdoor Learning Environment is specifically designed to support children and families living with the challenges of Autism and other special needs. These unique spaces, which are equally engaging for any child, offer a fun, safe and secure outdoor play and learning environment, while also presenting an array of opportunities to overcome common challenges.

And for Landscape Architecture Month:

To celebrate LA Month, Landscape Architecture Magazine is allowing everyone access to this month’s magazine online (click HERE to access). If you go to page 10, you can Letters to the Editor  in response to Bradford McKee’s February Land Matters article “Reading, Writing, and Radishes,” including one my me. And here it is, in case you don’t want to thumb through the Zinio file:

Great article! Sure, the sky is falling in many ways, but I firmly believe that this is also an exciting time when good grassroots work is being met by “top-down” players such as government, policy makers, designers, and health providers. A confluence of movements – sustainability, locavore, children and nature, healing landscapes, livable cities – are meeting and building on each other to create meaningful change in our time.

Click her to access the pdf mentioned above: Resources on Autism and Access to Nature

Schoolyards should have trees and other living things

Andrew H. Wilson Charter School courtyard, New Orleans, LA. Image courtesy of Pavestone Company.

Andrew H. Wilson Charter School courtyard, New Orleans, LA. Image courtesy of Pavestone Company.

Ironically, as I was preparing to post Amy Lindemuth’s piece on landscapes in prisons last week, I came across an article in Landscape Architect and Specifier News that had a picture of what looks like a rather bleak prison courtyard with no trees or other vegetation, just a two-toned paving grid. ‘How sad,’ I thought, ‘We still have such a long way to go.’  And then I realized that the people in the photo weren’t prisoners, they were children! Children at an elementary school in New Orleans, Louisiana. So here’s my Letter to the Editor (which has since been published in the February 2011 issue, Vol. 27, No. 02, p. 14).  As I say at the end of the letter, to me this is an example of failure, not success. Fingers crossed that they print it, and fingers crossed that this type of design is a dying breed.

Letter to the Landscape Architect and Specifier News Editor regarding “Another Brick in the Wall.”

When I first saw the feature image for Bruce Soileau’s article on the new Andrew H. Wilson Charter School courtyard (“Another Brick in the Wall”), I thought I was seeing a prison courtyard, and my heart sank at the huge expanse of paving with no plant material or any other kind of shade in sight.  Even inmates deserve some relief from paving, no matter how “interesting” the pattern (and the visual interest of the two-tone pattern here is debatable). When I realized I was looking at a newly designed courtyard for an elementary school, my sadness turned to anger. When a school gets a chunk of disaster recovery money, this is the best they can do? I understand that the school, not the designers, set the program. They wanted their large interior courtyard to be paved “entirely except for four planters that were installed” (of which there are no pictures in the article). What a shame. What an incredible missed opportunity to do something truly green and sustainable – for the planet, and for the children and teachers at this school.

This is New Orleans. How many months of the year will this courtyard be unusable due to extreme heat, glare and danger of sunburn? Even if no other plant material had been used, trees in this courtyard would have provided much-needed shade for people using the courtyard as well as for the building. Trees, in addition to providing green life, reduce the heat island effect significantly.

I wish someone had given the school administrators and the architects and landscape architects (if there were any) Sharon Danks’ new book Asphalt to Ecosystems: Design Ideas for Schoolyard Transformation and Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods before the design program was established. And I wish that someone had pointed them to the Children & Nature Network ( and the Therapeutic Landscapes Network ( for a stack of research on how important access to nature is for people’s health and well-being, and especially for children’s mental, physical and emotional development.

A schoolyard in Europe. Photo by Sharon Danks,

The Coombes School in England. Photo by Sharon Danks.

Sure, an interesting permeable paving pattern is preferable to asphalt, but come on. Really? A two-tone checkerboard pattern? Is that truly the best that the designers could come up with? And was there no way to convince the school to reach beyond an all-paved program? Children – all people, really, but especially children – need stimulation. They need access to nature. They need shade! To me, this schoolyard landscape is an example of failure, not success. Unfortunately, it’s the students, teachers and staff who will have to make do with it.

Addendum: I received this comment on February 2nd, which gives hope that things are not quite as bleak as they seem. I’m grateful to the person who commented, and I’m reprinting it in the body of the text here because it’s an important piece of the puzzle:
I was personally involved in the project pictured and have some background about the image in the magazine. It is the result of marketing personnel jumping the gun to produce an marketing campaign based on their products. The article was published about a particular brick used in the courtyard of this New Orleans school. The landscape plan has been designed and is waiting funding. In the upper right there is one of four large planters in the courtyard. Adjacent to the courtyard there is a grassed playyard with large live oak trees. There was even an educational wetlands designed for this area, but was postponed due to funding. There are also 4 additional grass playyards that are all nestled under 100 year oak trees. None of these are pictured because they did not include bricks which were being marketed. This is the result of taking an image of one area of an entire project. With only seeing the one image it is a terrible bleak place, but hopefully after funding it will be as nice as the rest of the playyards. Just wanted to let you all know that there is more to the picture. Thanks.

Bundle up! Don’t let the cold stop you, get outside and play.

I just stumbled across this article, “Going outside—even in the cold—improves memory, attention,” that the TKF Foundation posted on their Facebook page, which is so timely given a conversation I had this morning.

I was talking with a friend about the importance of outdoor play for children (well, for all of us, but this conversation was about kids). We live in New York in the Hudson Valley, where it gets cold in the winter. It has been getting cold here in the winter for a long time (and I’m talking geological time), and yet last week, his son’s school barred students from going out during recess because “it was too cold.” It was 30 degrees out. Um, hello-o, that’s barely above freezing. People upstate, like in Buffalo, not to mention North Dakota, would just laugh.

A couple of months ago, another parent told me that her son’s school was using recess – or the withholding of it – as punishment. Misbehave and you don’t get to go out at lunchtime. This is like trying to put out a big fire by giving it more oxygen. Kids need exercise. They need to blow off steam. They need unstructured play. They need to socialize outside of the classroom.

This is, sadly, a common problem, which is why the Children & Nature Network and lots of other wonderful organizations have sprung up in recent years (for a partial list, see the Therapeutic Landscapes Network’s Get Out and Play! page). Access to nature – for play, for fresh air and exercise, for a sense of wonder, for growing the next generation of stewards – is critical, and we need to keep fighting for it. So here’s some ammunition for our fight:

The Case of Elementary School Recess by the U.S. Affiliate of the International Play Association.

Several studies by Frances Kuo and Andrea Faber Taylor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Landscape and Human Health Lab have proven the benefits of “doses” of nature for kids, including those with ADHD. For a good summary, click on this link:, and also “Children with ADHD Benefit from Time Outdoors Enjoying Nature.” Here are the actual citations:

Coping with ADD: The surprising connection to green play settings.” Andrea Faber Taylor, A., Frances Kuo, & W.C. Sullivan, (2001).  Environment and Behavior, 33(1), 54-77.