Since the introduction of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), many of us have been aware of the need for more accessible public spaces. While many individuals understand the need for accessibility in hospitals, restaurants and other public areas, it’s important to keep in mind that children’s spaces are also covered by the ADA, meaning these locations need to be made accessible so they can be accessed by people of all abilities.
However, if you have a public or community playground or play space, you should think beyond accessibility to create an inclusive playground design that affords all children the opportunity to play. While accessible playground design and ADA requirements mean that children with disabilities can play on a playground, an inclusive playground combines children of all ability levels and developmental stages in one play space.
Making a playground accessible can mean including wheelchair-friendly surfacing or equipment designed for children with varying levels of mobility. However, making a playground truly inclusive means choosing equipment and designs that allow all children to play. An inclusive playground does not feel like an “accessible” space at all. It is simply a great place to explore, where typically developing children play alongside those with unique needs. Siblings, parents, and caregivers can all use the space to have fun and build social skills.
The reality is every child deserves a safe, comfortable and happy place to play. Inclusive playgrounds allow all children to take part in a cherished childhood activity. About one in six children in the United States have a developmental disability and about 5.2 percent of children have ambulatory, visual, hearing, or other disability. Creating accessible playgrounds enables these children to get on the playground. Creating inclusive playgrounds, however, brings smiles to children and can help them socialize and thrive because children of different abilities can all be included in play.
While inclusive playground equipment can help children with a variety of conditions, they’re not the only ones to benefit. Any child who has suffered an injury and is temporarily affected by mobility issues and any child who wants to play with other children — including friends who may or may not have mobility issues or other conditions– can benefit from inclusive playgrounds. When a child is in a wheelchair, for example, an inclusive playground lets them play alongside their able-bodied siblings and children who need service dogs or crutches. A child living with autism can meet neurotypical children in an inclusive playground to play together.
Inclusive playgrounds can also help create a better sense of community. By letting children of all ages, backgrounds and abilities play together, these play spaces can foster closer relationships and acceptance. And an inclusive playground also benefits all children – including those without special needs – because it is designed to engage a variety of senses and to encourage creativity in all children.
Making a Playground Inclusive: First Steps
You may think having an unlimited budget and a clean slate could help you build an inclusive playground. You’re probably picturing a 20,000-square-foot playground, like the highly-inclusive Squaw Creek Campground Park in Marion, Iowa. In reality, though, you can start right where you are – with your current play space and your current budget.
Even if you don’t have a huge budget and your current space doesn’t seem very accessible or inclusive, there are several things you can do. Before you invest in any equipment, however, you’ll want to set the foundation for an inclusive playground. This means you need to:
1) Understand the meaning of inclusive playgrounds
Many equipment manufacturers label equipment as inclusive. While these can be great pieces to add to your playground, don’t assume simply purchasing playground equipment marked as “inclusive” or “accessible” will address the issue. In fact, you can exclusively buy playground equipment labeled as “accessible” and still end up with a playground unable to be accessed some children.
This is because accessible and inclusive playgrounds are about more than equipment. It starts with design. An inclusive playground addresses the needs of all people, including those with intellectual disabilities, hearing impairments and other disabilities. It accommodates people of all abilities and challenges them at their own development level. An inclusive playground doesn’t leave anyone on the sidelines.
Yes, part of the plan is buying playground equipment that has inclusive properties. However, it also means considering the needs of the people who will be using the playground, considering how playground equipment will be used and choosing the right set-up for children.
2) Do a full assessment of your play space
Who will be using the playground? What play needs are not currently being met in your community? Evaluate each area of your current playground for inclusion and accessibility. Which children cannot use the playground or surrounding playgrounds as they are currently designed? If current playgrounds are too noisy, for example, you may want to set up a quiet space for children who become overwhelmed with too much sensory input.
Determining what is present in your community and what needs to be added can be a great starting point. Understanding which areas of your playground pose sticking points for children can also help you address those specific issues. For example, you may need to resurface the playground or include more space in between equipment to allow for wheelchairs.
3) Focus on strengths
Rather than spending money on equipment to tackle needs already being met, figure out where your playground excels. Perhaps you have a green space or some playground equipment appealing to children’s visual senses. If so, you may consider focusing on auditory senses and cozy spaces as well as mobility accessible features. Maybe you already have all the needed equipment, but the pathways to each area are not accessible to people who utilize wheelchairs. Knowing where you are currently meeting the needs of the community helps ensure you don’t get rid of pieces of equipment already being enjoyed.
4) Set goals
Once you understand who is using your playground and what is (and isn’t) working, set some goals. Which specific areas need to be addressed first? Create a list of design features you need to change and pieces of equipment you may need to enhance your play space. Divide your list into “must have” and “nice to have” features.
For example, if you have children using wheelchairs at your playground, your first priority will be to change surfacing so that it is wheelchair accessible. If you have children using your playground who are on the autism spectrum, include a cozy space where they feel safe. You may also want to include more colors, but you may decide that may wait.
When determining what you’d like to have first and what it might be nice to have, keep in mind that equipment with inclusive and accessible features comes at all price points. There are also fundraising, leasing and grant options to help you make changing your playground more affordable.
5) Examine the terrain
You need to work with the area you have. If the ground is uneven, it can be a great opportunity to create multiple levels of play. You can do this by using a variety of options to get children up high — including steps, rope systems, climbing areas and more. If the slope is naturally slight, you can have accessible paths and other methods for getting up the incline, so all children can play in the area.
Before creating high-up spaces, however, consider carefully. Elevated spaces can create a special challenge for children in wheelchairs and those with mobility conditions. How difficult would it be for a child in a wheelchair or with crutches to get to an elevated space? How easy would it be to get the child to get down and back up? What is the pay-off for climbing up high? If it’s an effort, make sure there is something in the elevated space that allows a child to stay for a while and interact. Simply having a ramp and a slide — even if the slide is accessible — means a child in a wheelchair will need to work hard to get to the top to only enjoy a few seconds of play.
Consider accessible and inclusive domes that include a climbing area on top and a space underneath for ground play. This can still let children climb high, while giving all children a place to play together underneath and around the structure.
6) Set a budget
Making an existing playground inclusive doesn’t have to break the bank. Determine how much you can afford to spend and examine the possibility of grants, fundraising, financing, and leasing to help you pay for the necessary changes.
Making a Playground Accessible and Inclusive
Once you have the foundations and are ready to make your playground accessible and inclusive, there are a few more considerations to keep in mind.
1) Start small and basic – with surfacing upgrades and grouping
Surfacing can have a huge impact on the accessibility and inclusivity of your playground. If you need to, upgrade the surfacing so it is accessible for all children, including those who use a mobility device. Many parents who have children who use wheelchairs prefer unitary playground surfacing, although you should consider the benefits and drawbacks of each surfacing type.
Once you decide on surfacing, take a look at the equipment already in place. Consider grouping playground equipment so children can easily access everything.
Rearrange equipment to give children a choice. For example, if you group all of your auditory-based playground equipment on one end of your play space, you can create a cozy and quiet space at the opposite end of the playground for children who need quiet moments. That way, children can choose between a quieter play area and one that is louder and more stimulating.
Additionally, consider rearranging to let children work together. For example, placing all bouncing equipment or all swings together lets children interact as they try the same activity. If a child needs added support, it can help them to see how other children nearby play on the same equipment.
2) Consider all ages
Add perimeter containment to keep children – especially younger children – from wandering off. If you have playground equipment for older children and younger children, decide whether you want to group by age ranges or by activity.
Playground equipment designed for younger children should be placed closer to areas where parents can sit and observe. You may want to include benches, for example, to let children play with proper supervision. If you have a bench area, make sure it is accessible and inclusive as well. It should be easy to get to and from the area in a wheelchair or with a walker, for example.
3) Think about the needs of children with behavioral or ASD
Focus on green spaces and quiet play areas where children can go if they become overwhelmed. Create cozy spaces. Ensure these are large enough to allow children to continue playing together or permit parents to climb in and support the child if they’re struggling with the noise and bustle of the play space.
4) Target all senses
Look around your play space with a critical eye. Is it visually stimulating? Does it appeal to the ear with equipment designed to make sounds, music, or noise? Are there green spaces or elements of nature? Are there different textures so children who have auditory or visual conditions can still enjoy the interplay between smooth and rough textures on a piece of equipment? Are these balance, pulling, or motion activities to stimulate vestibular or proprioceptive senses? Engaging all seven senses lets children experience the playground according to their own unique strengths.
Many pieces of equipment are multifunctional and designed to appeal to multiple senses for maximum accessibility. For example, Playworld offers the Bell Half Panel, which is visually appealing with its bright colors while also allowing children to explore the world of sound by making noises. The panel also encourages hand-eye coordination. This piece can be combined with a wheel or other equipment so children can play together and coordinate their playtime.
Similarly, the RockBlocks® WonderFalls lets children play on multiple levels and allows individuals of all abilities to move their bodies in different ways. Children can climb, slide and engage. The RockBlocks® WonderFalls also include design elements and bright colors for visual appeal as well as different textured materials so children can explore different surfaces. Both at the ground level and the higher levels, there’s plenty for children to explore.
There are pieces of equipment designed to appeal to multiple senses in every price point, so no matter what your budget you can find options to help you make your playground accessible and inclusive.
5) Include challenges at multiple levels
Always have obstacles and opportunities for creative play for children of all levels. Don’t consider one child user for your playground – consider multiple levels of ability, age, and engagement. Make sure children have a chance to experience the opportunity to grow.
Steps to Re-imagine Your Playground for Everyone
Making the transition from your current playground to a more accessible and inclusive one is a commitment. Part of the process will mean you have to envision your playground as a new space — one that’s available for everyone.
Here’s what you’ll need to do:
1) Make a specific plan
A great playground begins with having a detailed plan in place. This should include budget, financing, timeframe, and more. Playworld offers assistance by providing playground leasing and financing options as well as useful guides providing insight into obtaining financing and grants. You can also contact one of our representatives to get a quote for the playground equipment you need.
If you’re planning on installing new equipment or rearranging existing equipment, you’ll also want to draw up a plan of the playground. Make sure you include enough space around each piece of equipment to allow for groups of children or children in wheelchairs to get around easily without bumping into anything. Include measurements so you can be sure everything fits. Plan on including clearly defined paths for those children who may need a little extra support getting from one area to the next.
Planning on paper allows you to decide which piece of equipment can go where. This can be important to ensuring accessibility and inclusiveness, too. You want to ensure that the path between pieces of playground equipment is easy and intuitive for all children.
2) Get a quote for what you need
There are inclusive options for every budget. If you have an existing playground and wish to make it more inclusive and accessible, we can help. Contact Playworld if you’d like to speak to a representative about your budget and available options.
3) Test first
Before you buy or commit, test on paper first. Take a look at a design or sketch of the playground with your proposed equipment in place. What are some possible issues? Would it work? If you decide to resurface the playground, for example, but wheelchairs can’t get onto the play surface because of steps leading up to the area, you need to address this issue first. Consult with an inclusive playground design expert who specializes in noticing areas of concern.
4) Get feedback before you buy
Talk to parents and the children who will be using the playground. What pieces are they most excited about? What pieces would they like to see? Keep in mind most play spaces have a “star” or the “coolest thing.” This is a piece of equipment most children are excited to use and to try out. In most playgrounds, this is the piece of equipment which will see the most use.
For a playground to be truly inclusive, all children need to be able to play together, especially on the most fun thing at the play space. Try to determine early on which piece of equipment on your playground this might be and work to ensure that this piece is fully accessible to all users. You don’t want to inadvertently exclude a child from the “coolest” piece of equipment.
Inclusion is a realistic goal for all play spaces. No matter where your playground is located and what equipment you currently have, there are options available to you to make your playground accessible and inclusive to children of all ages and abilities. Don’t let your budget be a hindrance to building a creative, welcoming and inclusive space.
If you’d like to find out more, contact Playworld for quotes and additional information.