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A conversation with the world-renowned scientist, animal behaviorist, advocate for autism and author
As a child, my world was divided into two places: inside and outside. It was the 1950s, and if we had any say, my siblings and I preferred to play outside. We just loved being outdoors, whether it was the neighborhood with its playgrounds or our backyard or the woods beyond.
The outdoors is where I first started making discoveries, though I never would have called them that. I never would have thought that splitting rocks, or collecting shells, or dissecting flower buds was something scientists did to unravel Earth’s mysteries. To my mind, I was just playing. It’s only looking back now that I see how curiosity led to observation, and how observation is at the heart of all science. If you like looking at trees, and bark, and the pattern of veins in leaves; if you are fascinated by clouds or the spots on a ladybug’s back; if you like to split open rocks and see what’s inside, then you’re already an outdoor scientist. I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up, a question that grown-ups are fairly obsessed with. I also had no idea that all the stuff I loved doing as a kid would come to inform my life’s work.
– Dr. Temple Grandin, The Outdoor Scientist: The Wonder of Observing the Natural World
Dr. Temple Grandin is well known for her work in animal science and autism. In 2010, actor Claire Danes portrayed her in the award-winning HBO biographical film, Temple Grandin. As a prolific writer, she has authored numerous books and articles, sharing her wealth of knowledge in professional and mainstream circles. Recognizing her work as a college professor at Colorado State University, CEOWORLD magazine named her one of the top 10 college professors in the United States.
Having autism herself, Dr. Grandin is both an advocate and spokesperson for individuals on the autism spectrum. Recently, she has lent her knowledge and expertise to the park and recreation world through a unique collaboration with Play & Park Structures. She teamed up with the company to develop the Temple Trolley, a unique play event that incorporates spinning, swinging and gliding into one multisensory piece of equipment. Activities like spinning can have a calming effect on individuals with autism and can aid in reaching developmental milestones.
On September 21, during the 2022 NRPA Annual Conference in Phoenix, Dr. Grandin will present the session, “Inclusion for All Types of Minds and Bodies in Parks and Recreation With Dr. Temple Grandin,” and speak later at the Best of the Best awards ceremony. She will be sharing her research and insight on how people think differently. Parks & Recreation magazine recently caught up with Dr. Grandin to discuss the importance of outdoor play and how neurodiverse individuals can be included in recreation environments.
Parks & Recreation: What impact did time outdoors have on you as a child?
Dr. Temple Grandin: Outdoor time was my fun time. Mother used to say to me, “go out, run the energy out of you.” We rode our bikes all over the neighborhood. I would spend hours working on my different kite inventions when I was 7 and 8 years old to figure out how to make them fly better. It was all done outdoors. I just loved it.
P&R: A recent study stated that children spend less than 10 minutes daily in unstructured outdoor play in the United States. In comparison, on average, children spend seven hours on a screen daily. What impacts do you feel this has on our youth?
Dr. Grandin: I think that’s just terrible. When I was a child, we were limited to one hour of TV a day during the week and two hours on Saturday and Sunday, and my mother had to approve the shows. The rest of the time we spent outside, making up games and playing with neighborhood friends. Many kids live in my neighborhood, and there’s a building near where I live with a very nice playground. I never see kids on that playground. Free play is something that they don’t get much of at all today, and I think that’s a problem.
I remember talking to a lady that ran summer camp at a farm. In the morning, they had structured activities. Then, it was time for free play in the orchard in the afternoon. These were 8- or 9-year-olds. She said for about a day, the boys would mope around because they didn’t have any electronic devices. And then, maybe a day and a half into it, they would discover free play. They had the greatest time and wanted to come back next year, but they had to go through device withdrawal first.
P&R: What strategies can we use to encourage more outdoor time for our youth and adult populations?
Dr. Grandin: I remember reading a book years ago, called Last Child in the Woods, by Richard Louv. He talked about how, gradually, kids spent less and less time outside. And I think it’s unfortunate. I think about my time outdoors when I was a child. We would go to the beach in the summer, and I’d look for shells and make stuff out of them.
You have to get people out there doing things. There are all kinds of things you can do. Like in my book, The Outdoor Scientist: The Wonder of Observing the Natural World, you can go out and observe animals. They’re fun to observe, just watching them doing all sorts of things. I had somebody complain and say, “Well, there are no animals in the city.” I said, “What about pigeons? Plenty of those. What do they do? You can look at the stars and watch the space station as it goes by.” These are all things that families of all incomes can do.
P&R: Over the years, there has been a focus on inclusion in park and playground creation to provide spaces and equipment for various physical capabilities. Your collaboration with Play & Park Structures is one of the first to address the needs of those with different minds who have different play needs and styles. What needs or factors should be considered when planning play spaces for those individuals?
Dr. Grandin: The first step you must realize is that people think differently. Let’s just think about making designs for play equipment. A lot of that work is done by industrial designers rather than engineers, who are visual thinkers. I know the Play & Park Structures team gets many of their designers out of the industrial design department rather than the engineering department. After the design process, you must have some engineering to ensure the equipment is structurally safe. I think it’s good to have things be more inclusive; to do so, you must have different types of thinkers involved in the creation process.
P&R: You have stated that spinning was a vital play component for you as a child. What other types of sensory-rich movements should be incorporated into play equipment for neurodivergent individuals?
Dr. Grandin: Balancing activities should be incorporated into playgrounds and equipment. There are therapies where they’ll nail a two-by-four [board] to the floor and get the kid to walk across it because balancing activities are helpful for development. Also, things like horseback riding where you can get both balance and get rhythm. Those types of movements can be beneficial to a child.
P&R: When designing or planning for those who think differently, should individual needs be primarily considered, or should group play be prioritized?
Dr. Grandin: Both individual and group play are essential. Swings, of course, are more individual play. When I was a child, there were seesaws where two kids had to cooperate to make that work. Kids would also play together on the jungle gym. There was also a…gigantic slide at our school, and we had to take turns going on that; we had to line up and take turns.
P&R: For those municipal parks, schools and community centers that may not have new equipment in their budget, what can they do to support a neurodiverse population?
Dr. Grandin: Activities don’t need to be expensive. I wrote a book, called Calling All Minds: How to Think and Create Like an Inventor, which is all my parachute and kite experiments that I spent hours working on. I had to tinker and experiment to get my kite to work or get my parachute to open. These were things that didn’t cost a lot of money.
I’ve met kids that never made a paper airplane or snowflake. I gave a book signing for Calling All Minds four years ago in a nice suburb of Denver. About 30 percent of the kids that came to the signing had never made a paper airplane. Well, we got a lot of printer paper that night, and they got to make them. They found it fun throwing them off the balcony into the theater. And if it didn’t work, they got another piece of paper to try again. Kids today are removed from the world of hands-on making and are too afraid of making mistakes.
P&R: We’ve talked a lot about children and their outdoor experiences. How can our parks and recreation centers support the outdoor experience of adults with different minds?
Dr. Grandin: I think we just need to get everybody out there doing things. More time outside is good and giving people a sense of purpose is important. I went to a place that has a group home for people that have severe intellectual disabilities. They had a workshop where they made artwork and sold it. You see, that’s something real. It’s not just busy work — it’s something that has a purpose.
P&R: We are excited to have you as one of the marquee speakers at the 2022 NRPA Annual Conference in September. What are you most looking forward to at the conference?
Dr. Grandin: One of the things I want to talk about is different kinds of thinking and how there are different kinds of minds. I’ve got a new book coming out shortly after the conference on October 11, called Visual Thinking: The Hidden Gifts of People Who Think in Pictures, Patterns, and Abstractions. In the book, I talk about how different people have different ways of thinking.
I used to think everybody thought in pictures. The movie Temple Grandin shows perfectly how I think, and I thought everybody thought that way. I was shocked that some people think in words. And I discovered that in my late 30s. You have visual thinkers that like building things and mechanics. Then you have the visual-spatial thinkers that are good at patterns, math and music. And you’ve got people that think in words. Individuals that have a label often are more extreme. They might be an extreme mathematician. They might be an extreme picture thinker like me, or there are some that are extreme word thinkers, good at language.
The first step is to become aware that different types of minds exist.
To hear Dr. Grandin talk more about different types of thinking, tune in to the September bonus episode of Open Space Radio.
Paula M. Jacoby-Garrett is a freelance writer located in Las Vegas, Nevada.