Theme ‘Functions garden/outside area’

‘Functions garden/outside area’ is a theme of the chapter ‘garden/outside area’. (See The recommendations.)

The possible functions of gardens and outside areas depend in part on their transitional character as a way between private and public space. In the case of one’s own garden or courtyard the space can be fully private while a closed school playground or a secluded piece of nature on the premises of an institution may be shared by a select group. At times an institutional area is integrated as part of the public space, such as the street on which a school or care facility is located.
A home is private, but inside a school this is not necessarily so. Ideally, one’s own classroom may be experienced as a semi-private space. In a treatment or long-stay home, one’s own room is as private as it gets. In spite of these variations nearly all outside spaces are transitional areas between the strictly private and the distinctly public and of course they are under the open sky.
The boundaries of these areas are very important; they are dealt with in the theme ‘demarcation’.

For children and adolescents, gardens and outside areas are, first and foremost, play and experimental areas. Large play devices and sets can be placed there which cannot be used indoors. Play sets with swings or trampolines are essential for proprioceptive, vestibular and (other) motor difficulties. In public spaces the necessary conditions are difficult to meet, nor can the general (youthful) public be expected to be sufficiently aware of the special consideration children on the spectrum may need.

Surprisingly little study is done into the effects on autistic children of the way playgrounds are laid-out and equipped. Yuill et al write in 2006 “…there appear to be no published studies assessing the potential of playground design to foster playful peer interaction in children with autism.” Since then it seems very little has changed. In a small experiment these authors took several measures to enhance the lay-out and equipment of an ‘old’ playground to a new one. 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. (Also see recommendation 14.)

Buffer functions
Many functions of gardens and other outdoor areas can be characterized as buffers between public and private since one is outside without being subjected to what is or may seem dangerous in the public space. In a spacious garden or on the premises of an institution there is less risk of overwhelming stimuli; for example, one rarely meets a stranger. Due to the adequate supervision feasible in a contained space there are opportunities for risky learning – such as riding a bike – without the danger and threats of the world around.
Children may receive playmates from the neighborhood or school on their own turf. Here, with their own toys and under conditions which are largely controlled by the youngster, social contact is possible on their own familiar territory.
New contacts can also be effectively managed by the child or his care-givers: ‘strange’ children can be gradually admitted according to principles similar to those discussed in ‘lee-places’.
In treatment- and long-stay homes gardens and outdoor areas also serve as buffer areas delineating zones of high and low intensity.

Treatment- and long-stay homes
In treatment- and long-stay homes, the gardens and outdoor areas have more extensive functions and potential than the sward of a private home. Dr. Leo Kannerhuis staff members emphasize three: “defusing/relaxation, meeting and training.”
With respect to defusing and relaxation, the Kannerhuis advocates an immediately accessible space which allows children and adolescents to run unhindered and without obstacles as soon as the need arises. Also, the design of the space should include a sheltered retreat which functions as a hiding place as well. Furthermore, the path pattern should help alleviate and minimize tensions.
By letting the children design their own hangout, the “meeting” function can be facilitated.
Training and learning – the process of teaching people on the spectrum to make choices and take initiatives – are greatly enhanced with the adequate provision of outdoor activities and the consequent possibilities for structured contact with fellow residents.

Long-stay homes
Long-stay homes most likely make the most intensive use of gardens and outside areas. In the Netherlands, a unique institution known as WWA’s offer a space where a large part of the day-activities are done on the grounds of these facilities. Activities include work in forests, gardens and greenhouses. Some of these homes are farms and so the outdoors have an extremely significant function.

In similar arrangements for children and adolescents the stay is longer than in treatment homes. The difference with WWA’s is children still go to school. Given the fact that many people on the spectrum have a very special relationship to nature, the priority is placed on outdoor experiences such as the construction and maintenance of a vegetable garden or tending of animals such as chickens or rabbits.

There is general agreement about the special meaning of nature for many on the spectrum. Naomi Sachs & Tara Vincenta take this idea as a point of departure for the construction of natural outdoor environments with the aim “to help children apply the lessons they learn in the classroom to a real-world environment, providing them with coping skills outside of the classroom.” “However,” they add “it can be difficult for them to filter the amount of information coming at them all at once in outdoor, public spaces. Therefore, outdoor environments for this population should be both comfortable and supportive as they encourage skill-building.”
After providing a list of recommendations for the realization of such environments, they conclude “(by) connecting children with each other, nature, and the broader world, we give them an opportunity to have fun, and we provide some relief from rigid classroom and structured therapies in a safe and accepting environment that is engaging for all.”


Living and Work-arrangements for Autistics (‘Woon- Werkvoorzieningen voor Autisten’).
Sachs & Vincenta
Sachs, Naomi and Tara Vincenta, ‘Outdoor Environments for Children
with Autism and Special Needs’, In: Implications. A Newsletter by InformeDesign, 9 (2011) 1, 1-8. Download article here.
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