When it comes to integrating concepts of sequential outdoor learning (SOL) into residential and public environments that are particularly welcoming to children on the autism spectrum, Newtowner and landscape architect Tara Vincenta pretty much wrote the book on it.
Ms Vincenta has supplemented more than 25 years of work in the field with a substantial amount of hands-on research and personal observations. After graduation from one of the nation’s top landscape architecture schools in Syracuse, N.Y., she bounced between Denver and the East Coast honing her multifaceted skills.
A few years ago, Ms Vincenta became very interested in health care design after she found herself “in and out of hospitals, and finding myself craving a connection with nature to get out of that clinical environment. And I couldn’t believe there weren’t more places to go to restore yourself.”
At the time, one of the only places to go to learn about restorative gardening and design was the Chicago Botanical Gardens. So Ms Vincenta packed off to the Windy City, and found herself working side-by-side with experts from around the world who were pioneering the design practice.
“It wasn’t just architects who were interested in this concept, she observed, “I was there with hospital administrators and interior designers getting certified.”
To complete the course, Ms Vincenta was required to do an independent research project. So with her “keen interest in designing environments for children” as an inspiration, she was on her way.
“At that time six or seven years ago, I realized autism was on the rise,” she said. “And I became very intrigued about how we could design outdoor environments to support children on the spectrum and even create a bridge between structured therapies and classroom instruction so they could be more comfortable in the real world.”
Ahead Of Her Time
With about one in 50 children being diagnosed with autism according to the latest global statistics, Ms Vincenta believes its about time all children begin to understand that their peers on the autism spectrum have special gifts to share.
“And as a society, we have something of an obligation to understand them,” she said. “So by making all-inclusive playgrounds, it helps all kids understand each other by giving them a place they can all feel comfortable and safe together.”
A sequential outdoor learning environment is specifically designed to support children and families living with the challenges of autism and other special needs. These unique spaces are equally engaging for any child, offering a fun, safe, and secure outdoor play and learning environment, while presenting an array of opportunities to overcome common challenges.
But when Ms Vincenta decided to conduct the SOL project, she found few precedents in design for these unique outdoor environments.
“There was almost no research out there,” Ms Vincenta said. “I found one study from England — and had to develop most of the primary research myself talking to doctors, therapists, and teachers.”
Ms Vincenta attended and observed classroom experiences and applied her own creative design expertise to translate what she was learning into a template for physical environments that would serve children on the spectrum, while engaging any child.
In December, the latest refinement of her expanding trove of research earned Ms Vincenta accolades from her peers. The Connecticut Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects (CTASLA) bestowed Ms Vincenta with a Merit Award for her presentation, “Bridging the Landscape of Autism: Definitions, Design Guidelines, and Schematic Concepts.”
“These award-winning projects showcase the various ways that landscape architects enhance the built environment and contribute to the cultural resources of our communities,” said CTASLA President Eric Rains in his remarks about Ms Vincenta and her award-winning colleagues.
National & Local Credentials
Ms Vincenta is CLARB (Council of Landscape Architectural Registration Board) certified and licensed in Connecticut, New York, and California. She serves on the Architectural Advisory Board in Brookfield, and provides pro bono work on community projects, including the master plan for the proposed Mystery Park Recreation Center in that community
She has worked with Ability Beyond Disability and Roses for Autism, and was also engaged in developing a master plan for Temple Beth-Elohim in Brewster, N.Y., and a meditation and prayer garden for St Rita’s Catholic Church in Nederland, Colo.
Ms Vincenta is a member of the American Society of Landscape Architects, ASLA’s Professional Practice Networks in Therapeutic Garden Design and Children’s Outdoor Play Environments, the US Green Building Council, and is a certified WBE (Women’s Business Enterprise National Council) member.
“I’m so proud and humbled that the recognition isn’t just for the concept,” Ms Vincenta said. “I developed a set of guidelines for other professionals to design successfully for children on the spectrum. I read a lot of books, including by people with autism. This is what led me to create an outdoor environment.”
The overarching development of these spaces as Ms Vincenta conceives them comes from a sequential order with steps and transition areas.
“One thing that is difficult for families with children on the spectrum is to find a place where all the siblings can have a great time, feel safe, and know they will be accepted,” Ms Vincenta said. “So that means it’s not always about the child with special needs.”
One of the most evident features of her public design space concept is installing orientation maps everywhere so children can see where they are and decide if they want to be involved in that next step.
“These elements of consistency are important so they can feel safe, but at the same time, be challenged so they can overcome those little fears,” she said. “It’s a great way to learn and make it equally engaging so all children will want to be there. That inclusion helps them model other children’s skills in a real world environment.”
Homeowners looking to create various concepts from Ms Vincenta’s award-winning “grand scheme” template draw from a sequence of nine spaces that increase in complexity where activities within the activities are also sequenced.
Ms Vincenta says any all-inclusive environment that is nature based is very calming.
“I think integrating nature with sequenced activity can be applied particularly well in a home environment where you have a chance to work with children already familiar and you can get to know the needs and behaviors of that child,” she said. “If you know one child on the spectrum, you know one child on the spectrum, so I try to take general concepts and personalize them.
“A child’s unique interests can be addressed in a home environment,” she said. “Where, in a community space, we’re going for a broader application and addressing a lot of more common issues for kids on the spectrum.”
Ms Vincenta is continuing her research, hoping to meet and work with families developing or designing more uniquely customized spaces depending on their needs. She also values visiting with teachers, professionals, and others who work with children on the spectrum.
“I’ve had a lot of positive feedback from people who work with these children every day, but working with these families will help address the needs across a broader community, and helps me do a better job,” she added.
One of Ms Vincenta’s most ambitious residential projects to date keyed in on a child who was fond of the Treasure Island stories.
“We created an environment introducing elements like a beach, a dock, an island inside the area, a nature trail with lots of opportunities for sensory integration, different kinds of materials, lots of places to dig in the dirt, and introduction of water,” she recalled. “We introduced a lot of things you’d find in a typical playground with a little twist gearing it to that particular child or family — and I’m hearing it’s nonstop fun for the entire family.”
Keep up with Ms Vincenta and Artemis Landscape Architects on Facebook and Twitter. Or contact Ms Vincenta c/o Artemis Landscape Architects, 277 Fairfield Avenue, Bridgeport; call 203-740-7979 or e-mail SOL@artemisla.com.