Playgrounds as Therapy

Studies show that one in 88 children will develop an Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) by the age of eight. That’s a startling statistic. But as the number of children with the diagnosis grows, so does the public’s awareness and understanding of new therapies and treatments for increasing autistic children’s quality of life. At The Trust for Public Land, we’re learning firsthand that the built environment—in particular, playgrounds—can enrich the lives of children diagnosed with an autistic spectrum disorder.

Building Together

Through our Parks for People program, The Trust for Public Land regularly works hand-in-hand with school kids to plan the perfect park using a process we call “participatory design.” We spend weeks to months meeting with classes to collect their input, educate them on “green” features such as rain-capture elements, conceptualize playground features, and finalize the design. The participatory design process for the playground at P.S.164 was no different. But what made it exceptional was the help of the 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders at P.S. 77, the small special-needs school that shared their building.

“It’s the most beautiful playground we’ve ever made,” says Joan Keener, Parks for People program manager. “Movement and sensory stimulation tends to engage children with autism. So, this playground has touchable art, soft ground, and a sensory garden. It’s full of greenery and there’s so much to see, smell, and feel.”

The kids of P.S. 77 were engaged throughout the process, learning about different playground options and voicing their opinions. They gravitated to images of the sensory garden, turf field, and zip line, all of which were included in the final concept.

A Sense for Play

Comprised mainly of herbs and shrubs, the sensory garden offers students a chance to touch textural plants, such as lamb’s ear, smell aromatic selections like lavender and basil, and taste pungent herbs. The zip line offers a fast and thrilling—yet perfectly safe—ride through the air, while the turf field doubles as a soft spot for movement classes.

The innovative playground also boasts a track, an artificial turf field, a swirly slide, a climbing boulder, play house, and a beautiful mosaic tile mural. A green roof, rain barrel for watering the garden and extended tree pits with permeable pavers also help manage excess stormwater—quite an improvement on the asphalt playground of old.

Perhaps the biggest benefit of the new playground is that it welcomes students from both schools as well as neighborhood kids. It offers new chances for social interaction, and builds a sense of community for children who are often left out of “normal” activities.

“The kids of P.S. 77 were so happy to be included,” says Keener. “This playground was designed with them in mind and offers a chance for them to socialize with the other kids in school and in the neighborhood.