If We Build It…

Tying in with last week’s playground challenge, I thought I’d take a moment to tell you about a project I’ve been involved with since last September. This is a “to be continued…” post since the project is not complete yet, but I wanted to get started on the story.

A friend of ours is an interior designer and she works with an organization called Architecture for Humanity. They help design spaces for non-profit organizations and disadvantaged groups. They were asked to help guide a class at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco. The class project was to design a schoolyard for an urban school in Oakland called Sankofa Academy. Sankofa is the latest client of the Oakland Schoolyards Initiative, which has been working on upgrading playgrounds at some of the most disadvantaged schoolyards in Oakland. The catch with this particular playground is that Sankofa recently became the placement for about 30 students affected by autism. The principal had specifically invited the families of these students to attend her school with the goal of incorporating the students and their families into her school community. She wanted to update the playground to make it accessible to children with autism and attractive to neurotypical peers to facilitate social interactions and enhance learning of all of the students. It is a tall order. My friend asked if I would be willing to share some resources with her and eventually asked if I would participate in a panel discussion with the architecture students to give them an “autism parent’s” perspective. I was really honored to participate.

The panel discussion took place at the end of September. I am not so far into my journey as a parent of a child with autism, so I remember the misconceptions I carried in my own head at one time. The architecture students had already done some research, but it was mostly of the “book type” so their questions were refreshingly blunt.

  • “Does your daughter know what she likes?”
  • “What are your aspirations for your daughter?”
  • “What kinds of activities are hard for your daughter?”

My favorite moment was explaining to these students that my daughter truly enjoys playing with other children, but that she doesn’t understand the social nuances of cooperative play. I tried to help them understand that each individual with autism is unique and comes with a different set of challenges and strengths that affect their activities and social interactions in different ways. This, I think, is the biggest challenge of a playground designed for children with autism. I was impressed by the passion these designers brought to the table. They were undaunted, and headed back to their book research and drawing boards with more inspiration. Their passion was well-matched in their instructors, the school principal, and the playground expert who is overseeing the whole project. When complete this schoolyard will be a tribute of collaboration and community spirit.

I went back in December to see the students’ final design presentations and took my daughter with me. Each student had a poster and some models of their proposed designs. All of the designs were really creative. My daughter really liked one design which involved constructing a giant dome structure over a trampoline (jumping in a bubble – how fun!) and smaller domes where a few students could “squeeze” each other with cushions (deep pressure anyone?) Unfortunately we didn’t get to see all of the presentations, but it was fun to see some of them, and it was especially fun to introduce my daughter to the design students and see her interact with some of them.

Now the designs enter the proving grounds of real life. The Oakland Schoolyards Initiative is reviewing and sifting, selecting and combining for a final plan. They hope to install the schoolyard during the Summer of 2011. I hope to see the finished product in action.

If we build it…they will play.

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