Updated: Nov 11, 2021
Embrace a new perspective. For Autism Awareness Month this year, the Autism Society wants to move beyond just promoting autism awareness to encourage friends and collaborators to become part of the movement towards appreciation and acceptance. Miracle Playsystems Michigan supports this movement by encouraging our customers and team to push to set the standard of inclusive and welcoming playgrounds for children with autism.
Children with autism experience the world of play a little bit differently than other kids, repeating actions and tending to organize their actions and toys. These children often prefer to play by themselves and are less willing to play imagination games. These traits can make it difficult for them to play with other children, especially those who don’t have autism, and can sometimes leave them feeling left out of the fun. This can easily make the playground a stressful and unwelcoming place for both the child and the parent, who often has to do more planning and preparation than a parent of a child without autism. Will there be room to play with their child if it's necessary? How is the visibility in the area so they can check on their child regularly and know if they are becoming overwhelmed? Will there be a quiet place there to regroup if something happens? These are questions a parent of a child without autism probably won’t ask or worry about when going to the playground but are a part of the daily life of a parent of a child with autism. Too often, these worries can take all the fun out of a playground experience.
Our goal at Miracle Playsystems Michigan is to make going to the playground fun for everyone and create less stress when it comes to playtime by anticipating the needs of all children, allowing them to play together no matter their abilities or ages while still feeling safe and secure.
In celebration of Autism Awareness month, we’ve highlighted some challenges parents of children with autism face along with some insights and solutions that can be included in playground designs to combat them. Check them out below!
When a child with autism becomes overstimulated they may feel a need to escape. In fact, a documented 80% of people on the autism spectrum will be a “runner” at some point. A simple fence around a playground area makes sure children can’t run away from the environment into a potentially dangerous situation, such as a parking lot or road, and ensures they will remain in the area where their caregiver can reach them. This makes fences the number one request of parents of children with autism.
Here are some statistics to consider:
Perimeter Containment Tips:
Create a perimeter around the entire play space with only one or two entrances that can be easily watched by a caregiver.
Provide seats by the entrance(s) so that caregivers and parents can monitor the entrance(s).
BUT don’t forget about maintenance workers; Make sure that at least one of the entrances is wide enough for equipment.
Avoid horizontal components that can be climbed on.
Use materials and colors that can be easily seen at night and by people with visual impairments.
Jump and Bounce
After fences, the most popular request of parents raising children with autism is activities where their kids can jump and bounce. Elephant Play, a Canadian playground equipment manufacturer, makes very unique types of equipment for exactly that and is one of our favorites to include when designing accessible play environments.
With a durable yet bouncy center of textile-reinforced rubber, Elephant Play’s Bouncing Play structures create an experience uncommon in commercial playground equipment, allowing kids to have not only the freedom to climb and jump but to fly.
Elephant Play's Bouncing Mat is made of reinforced rubber attached to heavy-duty springs which limit the jumping height to 18" for safety. The edge of the Bouncing Mat is built out of recycled rubber that absorbs impact like a cushion and prevents any injuries from falls or tumbles.
By combining the Bouncing Mat with a versatile exterior rope structure, the Mini, Small, Full, and Jellyfish Bouncing Nets maximize activity while minimizing injury, providing the ability to both climb and bounce in new and unique ways. Not only is this tons of fun, but it helps children improve their vestibular and proprioceptive systems (their minds and muscles).
Sensory seekers will love the Sensory Maze from Miracle Recreation. Designed by child development expert Dr. Tina Stanton, the Sensory Maze combines the challenge of a traditional maze with imaginative play in the form of a multitude of sensory components. Children and adults of all ages and abilities including those with sensory disabilities can explore the distinctive textures, shapes, and colors of these reconfigurable panels by both look and feel in their own unique way, enjoying the maze either individually or as a group activity. Meanwhile, those easily overstimulated by noise or activity or who become too overwhelmed can also find comfort in cozy, quiet spaces located throughout the maze to take a break and regroup.
Features and Benefits of the Sensory Maze
Provides sensory experiences for children and adults with sensory processing disorders, such as those on the autism spectrum.
Aesthetic and engaging! Colorful, translucent panels with textured shapes offer a number of play experiences (and look good too!).
Fun for all ages! Parents and caregivers can view or join their kids for social interaction and intergenerational play.
Flexible and adaptable! Suitable for any play environment, the maze can be configured to any size, shape, or design for easy installation in new or existing spaces.
Never gets old! Reconfigure the maze thanks to the integrated Miracle Versa-Lok® clamping system.
Expandable! Optional surfacing can be added to create even more room for fun and imaginative play.
Watch the video below for more information about the benefits of Sensory Maze Panels and to see the activity in action.
Tactile Play with Sand and Water
Sand and water, such as in the form of a large sandbox, are perfect for providing a tried-and-true method of tactile input for sensory play. The simplicity of the building materials allows it to be used for a number of activities limited only to the scope of a child’s imagination and can be played with individually or in a group. The weight of the sand can even help to calm some children.
Slides are a classic activity and a favorite for children with autism as well as those without. Including a few different types can create hours of sensory fun and play for all.
Solitary Play in Quiet Areas
Because children with autism have trouble socializing and can become overwhelmed, it’s important to have quiet spaces where kids can have alone time but still feel safe and have fun. Play panels such as tic-tac-toe or a marble maze are great options for this while landscaping can be used to create quiet and relaxing corners, such as with a playhouse or benches.
Choosing a Cozy Space
Cozy spaces should be the quietest and least active areas on the playground.
The unused space around and under play areas can be utilized as quiet spaces, so don’t overlook them!
Consider products like a Playhouse (HAGS), Cave Rock, Bus Stop Bench, Full Enclosure with Seat, or crawl tube, which provide space for children to be alone when they need to be.
Equipment isn’t your only option; don’t forget about the features of the landscape you have to work with like trees and hills.
Spatial awareness and bodily awareness are things children with autism sometimes struggle with, but which can be improved with certain activities, such as by crawling through tunnels. However, remember that caregivers will feel more comfortable when they can watch their kids, especially those with special needs, so having equipment with high visibility, such as tunnels with windows might be the best choice.
Grouping of Activities
Picking accessible activities isn’t just about the equipment itself but about the arrangement of that equipment. Even though a playground may have the perfect activity for a child, they may still feel uncomfortable and not want to use it if it’s in an overly stimulating area, such as where other children will often be playing in large groups or running around. Children with autism like to have quiet and secluded places to play to avoid becoming overwhelmed. They also like to have a sense of control over their activities, which can be given to them by providing them with choices of what experiences they would like to have and allowing them to pick their own.
The best idea is to group noisy activities with noisy activities and quiet activities with other quiet activities to give kids a choice between having a sensory-dense and stimulating experience or a calm and controlled one. This also allows children in similar moods or those with similar needs to be naturally closer together, encouraging social interaction and teamwork that is comfortable for everyone. For example, two quiet children may bond as they push and pull on a seesaw or two social children could become quick friends as they work on activities side by side, asking each other for help to solve challenging puzzles.
Listen to the Community
Playgrounds are not just about having fun but about bringing communities together. Therefore, the most important part of designing a play environment is often keeping your eyes and ears open to the experiences of those around you, especially those who have different needs than your own that you might not have ever thought about.
We at Miracle Playsystems Michigan make a point to listen to stories like these and what we’ve heard over and over are parents of children with special needs wanting to know whether a project will be suitable for their child to use. For their kids, we’ve found, the addition of just a few pieces of equipment can make the biggest difference in creating a less stressful experience and open up a world of possibilities. These parents’ feedback and insights are crucial to us for developing equipment and activities that will enable all children to play together and have fun.
We believe the goal of any playground should always be to bring as many community members together as possible, and ensuring that play environments are accessible and inclusive is necessary in doing so. Every kid deserves to be part of play time!