Not all playgrounds are created equal, especially when it comes to providing play opportunities for children of all physical and mental abilities. Whether a playground is truly inclusive or merely accessible for children determines how rewarding of an experience the playground can offer its visitors. But what characteristics and features qualify a playground as accessible or inclusive? And how can we create play spaces that are warm and inviting to all members of the community?
We’ll explain the difference between inclusive and accessible playgrounds, as well as the main characteristics of each type of playground and why inclusive playgrounds are beneficial for children. Keep reading to learn how to build a playground that kids of all physical abilities, mental abilities and developmental stages can enjoy.
Difference Between Inclusive and Accessible
In 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) into law. The ADA extended civil rights protections to any person with a disability by prohibiting discrimination on the basis of disability in a variety of contexts, including public accommodations like playgrounds and parks. Thanks to the ADA, things like curb cuts, wheelchair ramps and accessible parks are now commonplace.
Before the ADA was signed, a person using a wheelchair could never be sure whether they would be able to navigate a public playground. Now, parks are required by law to have wheelchair-accessible paths. The paths also cannot have any obstructions, so a person who is blind can confidently walk the path.
However, the ADA guidelines are the bare minimum when it comes to creating a fulfilling play experience for children of all abilities. While the ADA only requires playgrounds to provide wheelchair access, a playground design needs to offer a bit more if it can be considered beneficial for every child. Although the ADA does not define the terms “accessible” or “inclusive,” making a play space both accessible and inclusive has become the gold standard for playgrounds.
The main difference between an accessible and inclusive playground is how the design affects the user’s experience. While accessibility focuses on removing any roadblocks from an individual having a playground experience, inclusivity enhances an individual’s playground experience by providing the tools necessary to make sure every user feels engaged and connected.
Essentially, the two terms can be broken down like this:
- Accessible: Any playground that can be entered or reached without challenge, making it open to any and every child, can be considered accessible. For example, a wheelchair-accessible playground is designed to allow wheelchairs to easily maneuver between pieces of equipment so anyone in a wheelchair can access all the playground features without issue.
- Inclusive: An inclusive playground helps children of all backgrounds and abilities feel a sense of belonging by ensuring every child can fully engage with the equipment without limitations. An inclusive playground enriches play for everyone by providing a variety of sensory experiences that children of all abilities can enjoy.
While all inclusive playgrounds are also accessible, not all accessible playgrounds can be considered inclusive playgrounds. An accessible playground does not always create the optimal space for disabled and able-bodied children to play and interact with each other. Inclusive playgrounds go above and beyond the minimum standards of accessibility to promote a truly inclusive experience so every child at the playground can feel like they belong.
The Different Levels of Play Spaces
Essentially, there are three levels of play spaces — ADA-compliant, accessible and inclusive. Each level creates an increasingly rewarding experience for kids of all physical and mental abilities. Below is a closer look at each of these types of playgrounds:
Level 1: ADA-Compliant Playgrounds
Every new and renovated playground since the ADA was signed must be ADA-compliant. By now, nearly every park and playground is ADA-compliant, so the phrase is not much to boast about. While being ADA-compliant is a great start for public spaces to become more welcoming to people of all abilities, it is the bare minimum for playground designs.
While the ADA takes wheelchair mobility into account by providing the specific measurement requirements for wheelchair-accessible routes, it does not mention anything about including playground equipment that children with other disabilities can engage with. For this reason, children with other physical or mental conditions may not be able to fully participate at an ADA-compliant park or playground.
Level 2: Accessible Playgrounds
An accessible playground takes ADA-compliance a step further by offering children of differing abilities a wide range of play experiences. Because the ADA does not give a specific definition for what qualifies as accessible, the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) developed standards that build upon the federally mandated guidelines. The ASTM F1487-17 Standard provides more concrete direction on how to design playgrounds for a higher level of safety and accessibility.
Because accessibility revolves around movement, travel and entry, an accessible playground must be a place that is easy for a child who uses a mobility device to move around in. By focusing on the freedom of mobility, an accessible playground helps kids who use a wheelchair feel more comfortable and accepted in the play area.
An accessible playground also offers more equipment options for children who use a wheelchair. For example, the playground may include gliders — platforms where a wheelchair can be secured — as a wheelchair-accessible alternative to the conventional swing set.
Thanks to their focus on mobility, accessible playgrounds are an excellent solution for kids who use wheelchairs. However, accessible design is specific and considers only a single problem or context, which means the resource in question may still be inaccessible to a group despite being accessible to another group. To better serve children of every capability level, a playground must go a step further.
Level 3: Inclusive Playgrounds
Inclusive playgrounds expand upon accessibility by creating an environment that encourages both disabled and able-bodied kids to interact with the playground equipment and each other to build connections. Instead of having separate special needs playground sections or playground equipment alternatives, an inclusive playground has modified pieces of equipment where children with disabilities can fully participate without leaving the main play area.
Inclusivity means the playground is designed to meet the needs of children who use a mobility device, are sight-impaired, have autism, have a sensory processing disorder or another condition. An inclusive playground design takes multiple types of physical and mental conditions into account to provide the resources for children of all abilities to have a rewarding play experience without being relegated to a separate area of the park.
Although every child may not be well suited for every activity, an inclusive playground features a variety of special needs playground equipment so differently abled children can choose how they enjoy their time at the playground. By enabling children of all developmental stages and abilities to play in the same space, an inclusive playground creates a nurturing environment for everyone.
Characteristics of Inclusive Playgrounds
Inclusive playgrounds usually include some key characteristics that foster inclusivity, belonging and fun. Most of the time, it is easy to recognize an accessible playground designed with people with special needs in mind. However, a well-designed inclusive playground is typically not as obvious.
Because an inclusive playground is planned out to meet the needs of children with a wide variety of abilities, its design incorporates innovative pieces of equipment that reimagine more traditional pieces of playground equipment. For example, a Unity® Dome is a modern take on a classic playground climbing gym that provides many different ways to get to the top based on ability level, along with sensory panels so children who don’t wish to climb can have an auditory or tactile experience.
To foster strong community connections, an inclusive playground design should include the 10 following features:
1. Unitary Surfacing
A unitary shock-absorbing surface is the safest surfacing option for inclusive playgrounds because the uniform, protective surface makes it easier for wheelchairs, strollers and other mobility devices to enter and navigate the playground. A slip-resistant surfacing material can also protect children and make it easier for people who use crutches or have a leg brace to roam around in the park.
A fence is an important playground component to keep children from unknowingly wandering into danger. A contained play area is especially helpful for children who are on the autism spectrum.
3. Social Play Spaces
Inclusive playgrounds should try to incorporate elements that will encourage children to interact and socialize with one another. Certain pieces of playground equipment, such as a Quattro Seesaw, promote cooperative and parallel play, which help kids form new friendships and build strong social skills. Play pieces that stimulate the imagination are also key to fostering interactive social play spaces.
4. Calm Areas
To help kids of all physical and mental abilities play together, an inclusive playground should provide areas where overwhelmed children can take time to watch the action and collect themselves before joining in the fun. Having a quiet, solitary option like a Cozy Cocoon can give a child the brief respite they need to help them adapt to a new situation. Even a path around the play area can give children the calm space they need to regroup before jumping in.
5. Sensory Components
Pieces of equipment that engage the tactile, auditory, visual, vestibular and proprioceptive sensory systems are crucial for inclusive playgrounds. Sensory activities are friendly play options for children of all abilities and can keep kids entertained for hours. Musical features like conga drums are especially popular for inclusive playground designs.
6. Maneuverable Routes
Of course, maneuverability is critical for an inclusive playground design. The travel routes through and around the playground need to be wide enough for children who use mobility devices to pass, transfer onto playground equipment and get close to the activities.
7. Various Levels of Challenge
To accommodate children of all backgrounds, abilities and developmental stages, an inclusive playground should offer play activities with graduated levels of challenge. For example, a playground spinner like Unity® SpinR gives kids the option of sitting, standing or laying down on the structure depending on their interest and ability levels.
8. Equipment Zones
Inclusive playgrounds strive to group similar pieces of equipment together so all kids can play on the same type of equipment regardless of ability. By designating these equipment zones, an inclusive playground can encourage social interaction and learning among children. Oftentimes, plants are used as the barriers between zones to soften the feel of the play area while still defining firm boundaries.
9. Forward-Thinking Play Equipment
Inclusive playgrounds are exciting because they pioneer the future of play. Instead of featuring conventional playground equipment that often excludes certain kids, inclusive playgrounds reconceptualize old equipment ideas to produce modern and better ways to play. For example, a Cruise Line improves upon swings by giving kids of all abilities an opportunity to experience the thrill of flying through the air.
10. An Inclusive “Coolest Thing”
Every playground has a “coolest thing” that gets kids more excited than any other piece of equipment. For an inclusive playground, it is imperative to make sure the “coolest thing” is usable for kids of all ability levels. This means the main attraction of the inclusive playground can be enjoyed by any child regardless of physical ability, mental abilities or developmental stage.
Characteristics of Accessible Playgrounds
Accessible playgrounds focus on being wheelchair accessible and eliminating barriers that might prevent a child from successfully navigating the play area. An accessible playground design considers how a child who uses a mobility device can interact with playground equipment. A well-designed accessible playground includes play pieces that are easy for children who use wheelchairs to reach.
Many accessible playgrounds include these features to enable kids who use a mobility device to fully participate in playground activities:
1. Accessible Ground Routes
Accessible ground routes are clear path systems designed to make playground access and navigation easy for anyone with a disability, including those who may use a wheelchair or another mobility device. These pathways connect all the entry and exit points of the accessible playground and its pieces of equipment. Additional circulation space should be included to maneuver around any high-use play components.
Ramps are a simple way to help grant children who use a wheelchair access to elevated playground features. Ramps enable kids who use a mobility device to enjoy the same play pieces and views as kids who do not. A wheelchair ramp should include handrails on both sides so children can pull themselves along, as well as enough space for a mobility device to turn around.
3. Transfer Mechanisms
Transfer mechanisms refer to transfer systems, such as a platform, that allow children to lift themselves onto elevated play structures and leave their mobility device on the ground. This type of platform requires clear ground space to park the mobility device, as well as supports like handgrips or railings at each level to assist with the transferring process and general mobility.
4. Wheelchair-Accessible Playground Equipment
Some children are not able to transfer out of their mobility devices, but still want to play like any other kid on the playground. In these cases, wheelchair-accessible playground equipment is essential for providing a fun playground experience. Certain pieces of equipment, such as a wheelchair-accessible merry-go-round, allow a child in a wheelchair to easily roll on and enjoy playing along with everyone else.
5. Slide Alternatives
Slides are a staple of any playground, but they can pose a problem for any child who uses a mobility device. Accessible playgrounds allow children of all abilities to make it to the top of a slide and enjoy the exhilarating ride down by providing lower transfer points and handrails so children can access the slide from the ground level and pull themselves along. By adding a Dignity Landing to the bottom of the slide, a child has a place to wait for their wheelchair.
Benefits of Building Inclusive Playgrounds for Kids
People of all abilities, ages and backgrounds deserve to have access to safe and exciting play spaces. Along with giving children of varying ability levels a secure place to play, an inclusive playground offers benefits that extend beyond a fun hour at the park. In fact, inclusive playgrounds can build stronger families and bring communities together.
An inclusive playground offers the following five advantages:
1. Creating a Stimulating Play Space
An inclusive playground design provides kids with a wide variety of exciting activities to participate in. The sensory components of an inclusive playground allow their users to engage multiple senses at once, which means the sensory activities capture their attention and keep kids entertained in more ways than one. These stimulating activities appeal to kids of all ability levels without causing unnecessary fatigue or stress.
2. Nurturing All Aspects of Child Development
Inclusive play goes beyond providing physical access to an area. An inclusive playground also focuses on what happens in the play area once a child gets there by presenting the equipment and activities children need to feel respected, encouraged and active while playing together. In this way, an inclusive playground helps build kids’ physical, social, emotional, cognitive and communicative skills.
Encouraging kids of varying backgrounds and abilities to play together also helps give them a better understanding of the world along with a greater appreciation for differences and similarities among people. At an inclusive playground, children can learn new perspectives and develop empathy, which are traits they can carry with them for the rest of their lives.
3. Boosting Kids’ Self-Esteem
A positive experience on the playground can help children develop a strong sense of identity at an early age and boost their self-esteem as they learn valuable new skills. Kids can also gain confidence from making new friends and participating in group games alongside their peers. Inclusive playgrounds encourage these enriching experiences by providing a place for children of all ability levels to fully participate in playground activities.
4. Promoting Family Time
An inclusive playground helps families spend more quality bonding time together. While a park that doesn’t provide inclusive and wheelchair-accessible options makes it difficult for family members with disabilities to get around the play area, an inclusive playground enables adults with disabilities to spend time with their children or grandchildren by providing an easily accessible space.
5. Strengthening Community Ties
By bringing people of different backgrounds and ability levels together, an inclusive playground can build strong community bonds and a brighter future. A truly inclusive play environment breaks down barriers to help members of the community form meaningful connections with each other. An inclusive playground can help unite community members of varying abilities, ages, cultures and developmental stages through the power of play.
Inclusive Playgrounds Benefit the Entire Community
An inclusive playground helps strengthen community ties by encouraging kids of all abilities to play together and get to know one another. By offering able-bodied children the exact same level of fun and engagement as children with disabilities, an inclusive playground draws in kids from a wide variety of abilities.
An inclusive playground provides children a stimulating play space regardless of their physical or cognitive ability levels. Playing within an inclusive space will nurture a typical child’s development just as much, allowing them to grow in multiple areas and build their self-esteem. Kids of all abilities will love playing on an inclusive playground and enjoy spending time with their families in these safe, fun spaces.
In this way, an inclusive playground bonds community members and promotes togetherness by attracting many types of families.
Partner With Playworld to Plan Your Inclusive Playground
To start planning your inclusive playground, browse the innovative collection of inclusive play solutions from Playworld. At Playworld, we offer a wide range of fun playground activities for children of all ability levels and developmental stages because we believe in the value of inclusive play. Our playground equipment pieces are designed with inclusion in mind to support child development and promote fun for kids of all ability levels.
If you’re ready to start designing your inclusive playground or you have more questions about the details of inclusive play, contact Playworld today.