Play is a vital component to the development of children. They learn a great deal from time spent on a playground, including crucial motor and social skills. Playgrounds have come a long way from what they’ve been in the past, but they still frequently lack one necessary feature — inclusivity.
While most of us have fond associations with local playgrounds, many children with disabilities feel that playgrounds are places of exclusion, where they only get to sit on the sidelines and watch their friends having fun. Without a playground for children with disabilities, they miss out on a valuable and wonderfully fun opportunity. But there’s good news — inclusive playgrounds are becoming more and more popular and can add a sought-after play option to any city.
Playgrounds Have Changed
Today’s playgrounds feature a variety of installations that have propelled the idea of play well into the 21st century. The City Museum in St. Louis, Missouri, is an excellent example of an innovative playspace. The winding, wrapping metal cages lead children around the outside of a 10-story building filled with networks of caves, a “skateless” skate park and countless jungle gyms. Children of all abilities can spend hours here and not get bored.
Less extreme examples of innovative playground features include new installations like musical instruments, climbing nets and water play areas. The general design of playgrounds has also changed. The typical model in the 1990s was to include a main structure, tiered with several layers, with slides, monkey bars and other interactive events branching off. More modern designs lean toward circuit patterns with a linear structure.
These designs, as well as the creative applications that have followed, are great for able-bodied children to seek thrills and play socially, but some are left out.
In 2010, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was revised to include several changes to the ground area beneath the structures. Ramps, travel routes without barriers and a more suitable surface material were also required if someone wanted their playground to be compliant. It also defined more types of play that should be represented. Even parks that complied with these would often not include those with disabilities. Around the world, definitions of accessibility can be even less clear. In 2013, the Leisure and Cultural Services Department of Hong Kong stated that 70% of their 659 playgrounds were inclusive, but the Hong Kong Committee for UNICEF found only 4.5% of them equipped with inclusive facilities.
While someone in a wheelchair might be able to enter the playground physically, they would still be barred from most of the activities. They could be blocked from the paths to a multilevel structure that are too narrow, or they might sink into the mulch, which is still considered ADA-compliant. Even a child who has no difficult physically accessing the structures may have difficulty in overstimulating environments or pieces that are hard for someone with low-vision to see. So while they can still technically use the playground, they can’t really play on it. Accessibility is not equal to full inclusivity.
Inclusivity ensures that kids of all abilities can enjoy what a playground has to offer. The playground is designed for all and includes a variety of options.
A non-inclusive playground would keep children with disabilities or limitations from accessing vital components of play. Aside from the physical aspect of play, they also miss out on the social and mental development that occurs on a playground. Crucial learning components develop during play, and if an inclusive playground is not available, children may be robbed of these valuable experiences.
What Does an Inclusive Playground Look Like?
One of the first things you’ll notice in an inclusive playground is a variety of options. Because of the vast difference in the abilities, a fully inclusive playground involves multiple types of play that provide options for people of all levels of ability and challenge. Most will have space for different kinds of social interaction. It should also involve not just kids. Parents of children with disabilities or with disabilities themselves often struggle to play with or assist their children. An inclusive playground works for adults, too, providing spaces for them to get involved and help children if needed.
There is no one definition of an inclusive playground, and the number of inclusive features can vary greatly. Some parks may have a wide variety of installations, with others may just have a ramp and one adaptive swing. New York City even has a tiered system to help users gauge the accessibility of a playground with levels one through four.
There are many ways to make a playground more inclusive. Below are some of the aspects that you may see in an inclusive playground that differ from a non-inclusive one.
Accessibility concerns address the level of getting to the various features of a park and physically accessing them. They include:
- Surfacing: Poured rubber surfacing is often best for inclusive parks because it is easily maneuverable for users with mobility devices and also offers protection from falls and scrapes. Mulch and other loose materials are sometimes used, and while they may be ADA-compliant, they are very difficult to get a wheelchair or walker across. They can also remove any smooth transitions you have in place when disrupted.
- Reach ranges: Wheelchair users are excluded from some activities based on their range of motion. Sandboxes, for instance, can be challenging to access, and water fountains may be out of reach. Interactive objects, such as telescopes, play panels and water tables, should be at varying heights to accommodate for this.
- Routes: Of course, routes should be wide enough for people with mobility devices to move about easily. Play structures can use ramps and wide paths.
2. Richness of Play
Play richness refers to the quantity, quality, diversity and inter-relationships of play events. It includes experiences that are physical, sensory, social and cognitive. Adding play richness involves many different types of play for kids of all abilities to enjoy. These include:
- Sliding: Slides can have a variety of heights, accommodate multiple people and include a variety of types, including those that don’t generate static electricity and are safe for those with cochlear implants. Another accessible development is to add a bench-like area at the bottom of a slide for kids to wait for any assistive devices to be brought to them.
- Swinging: Swings can be adapted with harnesses or wheelchair hookups. There is a multitude of types, like a belt swing, group swing, basket swing or intergenerational swing.
- Walking, running and rolling: A maze, obstacle course or track are great areas to add opportunities for these activities. Including space and equipment for activities like tag and basketball can also give kids an area to play and let them get creative with it.
- Movement from a mobility device: Offering spaces for children in mobility devices to move with their device allows them to experience a new type of motion. Adaptive swings, merry-go-rounds and gliders can accomplish this.
- Auditory: Many parks involve installations that help kids generate or learn about sound. Musical instruments or features that experiment with echoes and acoustics can be great ways to get kids listening.
- Visual: Involving visual experiences can be as simple as asking kids to track something with their eyes or doing matching games and spot-the-difference activities.
- Interaction with nature: A park lush in natural landscaping and features helps kids experience the vast benefits of nature. Sensory gardens can help you incorporate all of the senses. Visually interesting flowers, fresh scents, tasty herbs, odd-textured plants and the gentle buzzing of the creatures that help them grow can get kids more involved with nature and their own bodies.
- Cozy places: Many children deal with sensory overload and can benefit from a quiet place to feel alone. These spaces still allow the caregiver to see the child but provide them a space that seems slightly isolated, like areas under a play structure or a tunnel with a window. Sometimes they include engravings or tactile experiences to help children with self-regulation.
3. Social Opportunities
Social play develops social skills, teaching kids things like sharing, cooperating, negotiating and self-advocating. They also learn more overarching concepts like respect and acceptance as they interact with their peers. The experience of playing with children one’s own age is different than playing with an adult. There are several skills that children learn when they work with each other and not under the guidance of a caretaker.
Incorporating social play in a playground involves providing an opportunity for different types. Some kids do better with solitary play, while others are perfectly happy to collaborate. A playground can offer space for traditional games like basketball, hopscotch and tag, along with areas for observation or independent play. These can use hoops of multiple heights and independent play items that appeal to different challenge levels. Games offer children opportunities to self-regulate and learn the logic and structure of the game. As they get older, strategy and cooperation become more common.
Symbolic play can also be valuable in social development. Spaces for kids to play “house” or “school” develop creativity and can occur in themed structures, stages and playhouses. Loose parts work similarly by allowing kids to take advantage of their imaginations and manipulate their environments. Storage bins filled with building blocks or dress-up clothes and sand and water toys can bring out creativity and social interaction.
4. Equipment and Layout
Equipment in a playground is a major component of making it inclusive, especially through choice. Kids of all abilities should be able to find enjoyable activities. Offering access to elevated heights to children with mobility devices can be powerful. Who doesn’t want to reach new heights and see the world differently? In other playgrounds, this may be relegated to only able-bodied children via narrow paths or steps. Accessible ramps offer this exciting experience to all children.
The placement of the equipment is also important. “Zoning” play areas tends to work well by orienting play off of a central path. This offers a safe zone for many children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or sensory processing disorders to retreat to before rejoining play. A circuit or central path with branching zones are two suggested strategies for this.
Children with sensory processing disorders or visual perception issues may struggle with bright-colored equipment. Designers usually opt for neutral, muted tones with bright-colored accent pieces. Steps and risers are often marked with alternating colors and yellow highlights to help those with low vision or perception issues.
5. Support Features
The equipment isn’t the only part of a playground that needs to be designed for all. The surrounding structures are a significant part of the experience and make a big difference for the caretakers.
- Seating: Seating should be strategically placed with a lot of variety in the types of seats available. There should be benches with space beside them for wheelchairs to pull up. They should also be placed in shaded areas and within view of the play structures. Tables should include a variety of seating options, including space for wheelchairs, seating in the middle of a table and child-sized tables.
- Restrooms: Accessible restrooms should meet all ADA regulations at a minimum and provide plenty of support structures, along with an adult changing table.
- Drinking fountains: Including different drinking fountain levels accommodates children with disabilities as well as those of a variety of ages. A fountain may also include an area for service animals.
- Parking and transportation: The parking lot of an inclusive playground typically has substantial van parking, more than required by standards. Any bus stops should be wheelchair accessible and provide shelter for people as they wait.
- Shade: Some people have allergies to sun, photosensitivity or are susceptible to sun poisoning. Natural shade from trees, shade over the play structure and shaded seating options can do wonders for them.
- Service animals: A place for animal care, like waste disposal and water access, are valuable.
- Signage: Signs are typically easy to read, following standard practices for font selection. Text is high-contrast, avoids all capital letters, is left-aligned and includes symbols, icons and braille where possible.
- Accessible information: Leaving the home sometimes takes a lot of effort, so information to prepare the visitor is often supplied, including maps, directions, parking information and a list of accessible features. This helps them to come ready for the experience and enjoy the visit.
Benefits of Inclusive Community Spaces
Inclusive spaces are good for more people than just the children using them. They also have positive impacts on their peers, the community and their caretakers.
1. Children With Disabilities or Impairments See Many Benefits From Playgrounds
Outside of play, they are often left to their own devices, watching other kids or finding entertainment on their phones or computers. This keeps them indoors and isolates them from other children. Playing with others helps them develop necessary social skills and avoid feelings of exclusion. If a child’s disability doesn’t impede on their enjoyment of a playground, they can be involved in every aspect of play, which can boost their self-esteem and resilience.
Group play is an integral part of learning social skills and building relationships. With the inclusive design, all children can interact with each other and use a variety of social play styles. Increased social activity also helps able-bodied children to develop attitudes of acceptance and bond more through activities like cooperative play.
Physical activity helps kids stay healthy, regardless of their ability level. Even those with mobility impairments can use play to develop fine and gross motor skills and exercise what parts of their body they can. Physical activities built for all keep them having fun while they build muscle and improve their health.
2. Parents and Caretakers Have an Easier and More Enjoyable Time
It can mean a world of difference for parents to see their children excited to go to the playground — a place that might otherwise be off-limits. For families where this opportunity isn’t ordinarily available, children may be especially appreciative of the new opportunities. Some playgrounds that may be less inclusive than others are often impractical for caretakers to maneuver around. An inclusive playground makes it much easier for them to help kids onto slides or bring them a mobility device when they reach the bottom. It can also take some of the stress off of watching a child with ASD who is likely to experience sensory overload.
Inclusive spaces also make room for parents with mobility devices to play with their children. A wider path makes room for a wheelchair user to move alongside their child, and a picnic table with an opening in the middle allows them to talk to and reach multiple kids at the table. The experience can make for both happier parents and happier kids.
3. Inclusive Spaces Also Benefit the Community as a Whole
Some people define a disability as something that prevents a person from engaging in many activities integral to daily life. But this definition is narrow. It ignores the fact that many of the limitations a person with a disability might experience were placed there by able-bodied people and are the result of issues like environmental barriers, poor employment protection and inadequate civil rights legislation. It absolves society from its responsibility to people with disabilities. By designing a space for inclusion, we reinforce the idea that a community should engage all of its members.
Learning values of respect and support are also key components to a successful community, and better relationships among children help to build better citizens. On the playground, they learn things like taking turns, leadership, negotiation and conflict resolution. Involving children of all abilities in play helps them learn to cooperate with each other.
Many of the innovative playground design principles that go into an inclusive playground are also principles that work for able-bodied children. For instance, one element of inclusive design is to use common and recognizable objects. This usage is to discourage children from seeing the objects as complicated and being scared to use them improperly, affecting children of all abilities. It’s important to remember that an inclusive playground can be just as helpful for the development of able-bodied children socially, cognitively and physically.
4. Cities Can Benefit Greatly From Inclusive Playgrounds
Some are hesitant to promote inclusive playgrounds because they think there isn’t enough of a demand for it, but this neglects the fact that inclusive playgrounds are still playgrounds. As we’ve discussed, the benefits are wide-reaching and apply to more than just the children with disabilities or impairments. In 2017 through 2018, 14% of all public school students received services under the Individuals with Disabilities Act. That means nearly one in six school-aged children lives with a disability and can benefit from an inclusive playground. Their parents will appreciate it, and their peers can benefit from it as well.
Many inclusive playgrounds were designed by parents who made them because no suitable area existed for their children to play in. One such park is Magical Bridge in Palo Alto, California, which pulls in around 20,000 visitors a month. There is a significant demand for these playgrounds, and some parents of able-bodied children enjoy knowing that their kids are interacting with people of all abilities.
Learn More About Playworld’s Inclusive Playground Equipment
No child should be made to feel like the playground is anything but a positive, fun, inclusive experience. Here at Playworld, we believe in playspaces that value diversity. We aim to create spaces that celebrate every child, regardless of their ability, and make the experience of play enjoyable for every kid and their families.
Our wide variety of playground equipment is designed for all children, and we have certified Inclusive Play Specialists to help you bring this goal to life. Read more or find a representative today to learn more about bringing inclusive play to your area.