A responsible playground

Recommendation 14
Have a responsible playground

Chapter (theme)
Functions garden /outside area

Because of
most autism characteristics

In order to
enable autistic students to engage in the developmentally important outside play.

Virtually all schools have a schoolyard and/or other playground. These are crucial for the child’s development. On his blog Edward Shepard enumerates eight scientifically backed advantages of unstructured outside play. Better vision, better resistance to disease, increased Vitamin D, better attention spans, better physical fitness, better physical coordination, better classroom performance, will all apply to autistic students as well. Less stress, though is questionable and other advantages too will be absent or limited, unless a number of conditions are met.

Some important ones, which are treated elsewhere, are listed here.
It is crucial that possibilities for bullying, from which autistic students suffer more than others, are prevented or strongly reduced. The design of the playground should therefore contain sufficient sightlines to enable adequate supervision. (See recommendations 16 and 37.) If the students are younger and/or more severely autistic observation from behind glass windows is another option. (Recommendation 15.)
Another lay-out condition is that students with autism who can’t or aren’t allowed to participate in all activities have an opportunity to withdraw fully or partially. (Recommendation 17.)
In view of the motor problems of many of these students, they should be able to benefit from play sets which stimulate their proprioceptive, and balance skills. (Recommendation 11.)

Finally it is advisable, especially for younger and more severely autistic students, that the playground can be reached directly from the classroom and to make sure there is a firm boundary with the adjacent spaces. (Recommendation 7.)

Yuill et al is one of the very rare studies in which measures were taken to enhance initiation of social contact and playing together of autistic children. In a small experiment the level of physical challenge was raised to ‘just difficult enough’, a circular railroad was installed to support imaginative play, the environment was structured in the sense that children were guided from one activity to the next (phase) and observation points were installed, so children could ‘participate’ from some distance (see lee-places). As a result the children engaged in almost twice as many group interactions as before, played much less solitary and initiated markedly more interactions with other children.

On closer inspection then, it appears much has to be done in order to bring the advantages of outside play within the reach of autistic students. This is understandable when one realizes that two of the three core autism-symptoms are strongly involved in interacting with other students: social and communicative limitations. The third ‘repetitive and stereotypical patterns in interests and behavior’ is also involved to the extent this implies a great need for structure. Where this is the case, the situation Shepard has in mind, ‘unstructured outside play’, may have to be limited. In some Dutch schools, for instance, students can choose in advance (through ‘picto-cards’) which zone on the playground with a specific activity they prefer.


Yuill et al

Yuill, Nicola, Sara Strieth, Caroline Roake, Ruth Aspden, Brenda Todd, ‘Brief Report: Designing a Playground for Children with Autistic Spectrum Disorders—Effects on Playful Peer Interactions’, In: J Autism Dev Disord (2007) 37:1192–1196. PDF