As school communities become increasingly diverse, you may be looking for innovative ways to encourage kids of various ages and abilities to connect through play. Inclusive playgrounds are increasing in popularity as schools, churches and communities aim to create more open and accepting environments for kids of all abilities to enjoy. For help making your current or new school playground more inclusive, keep our inclusivity tips in mind.
8 Ideas for Making School Playgrounds More Welcoming
Recess on a school playground is often a child’s favorite part of the day. School playgrounds are a space for kids to release energy during the school day, socialize with classmates and explore the world around them. Traditional playground equipment tends to limit kids with disabilities from playing with kids who are typically developing. Creating an inclusive playground environment for schools is crucial to ensure all students get the chance to benefit from unstructured play.
Whether you’re designing a new playground or looking for ways to improve your current playground, inclusivity and accessibility should be top priorities. Even if you’re on a strict budget, there are ways to make inclusive playgrounds for schools. Consider these eight tips for making school playgrounds more inclusive.
1. Make the Playground Accessible
Though accessibility and inclusivity are slightly different, they can create optimal playgrounds for kids when used together. Accessibility ensures everyone can navigate the playground and access its features with ease. Inclusivity means ensuring everyone stays connected and engaged while playing. Both aspects are vital to an effective playground, and they tend to go hand in hand.
To make inclusive playgrounds, improving accessibility is an excellent starting point. Accessible playground design helps provide more opportunities for kids to move around and play on the playground. Consider these ideas.
- Wide walkways: Narrow paths or entryways make it challenging for kids, adult playground monitors or parents with mobility devices like wheelchairs to enter and move about within a play space. Upgrading your playground to have broad walkways makes it easier for visitors of all abilities to access and enjoy your school’s playground.
- Even surfaces: Another aspect of your playground that can increase accessibility and inclusivity is the playground surfacing. Uneven surfaces are challenging to navigate with mobility devices and can create safety risks. Unitary playground surfacing creates one uniform surface for your playground site, making it easier and safer for kids of all abilities to move around.
- Playground site near buildings: In addition to the ability to move freely around the playground, it’s crucial for kids and adults to easily get to the playground from the school buildings. If you’re building a new playground, it’s best to choose a site as close to the building as possible. This proximity gives students and adults quick access to the playground and allows them to maximize time spent outdoors.
Accessibility makes getting to and moving around the playground more convenient for people of all abilities. Once you’ve given everyone access to the playground, you need to focus on fostering inclusive play so kids can enjoy the space once they enter it.
2. Include Ground-Level Play Opportunities
Many playgrounds often feature tall jungle gyms that require kids to climb ladders, stairs or other equipment to reach the fun at the top level. Kids who are either too young to climb safely or are physically unable to climb might get left out of the play that occurs on these pieces of playground equipment. Including more ground-level play opportunities helps create a welcoming, accessible play environment for all kids.
Providing an assortment of loose parts is an easy way to offer more ground-level activities for kids. These items include play materials kids can bring outside with them and take back in after playtime is over. Loose parts are a more cost-effective way to foster inclusivity for schools with an existing playground or limited budget. Offering kids materials like jump ropes, chalk, balls, hula hoops or blocks can help encourage more play at the ground level.
Look for ways to make ground-level play simple. For example, giving kids the option to decorate cardboard boxes with crayons or markers on the playground invites them to engage in creative play. Studies show that kids are highly motivated to play with loose materials because they get inspired to make up new games. They may create forts, rocket ships, murals or airplanes without the need to leave the ground. To help keep loose materials organized and prevent lost parts, you may consider using an outdoor storage cabinet.
If you’re looking for fixed playground equipment that can bring the fun down to eye level, consider adding activity panels to your school playground. Install activity panels at varying heights to allow all kids to play with them. These activities can range from ball mazes to car dashboards and magnifying glasses. This equipment offers kids of any ability, height or age to enjoy the playground.
Other options for fixed playground equipment that encourages ground-level play include swings, spinners, gliders and rockers. These playground components are ideal inclusive options because there are many ways to incorporate them in your playground design and kids of all abilities can play on them.
3. Incorporate Inclusive Equipment
One of the best ways to create inclusive playgrounds for schools is to incorporate equipment designed to help kids with mental or physical disabilities play alongside typically developing kids. This equipment appropriately challenges kids based on different development levels. You can incorporate a wide range of inclusive playground equipment into your playground design, including swings and wheelchair-accessible equipment.
Inclusive swings are typically a bit bigger and heavier-duty to support kids who may have difficulty sitting in a swing. Some accessible swings come with straps to ensure security. The accessible swing seat from Playworld features a safety harness like those on a roller coaster that lifts up and snaps into place between the legs to make using the swing that much easier. With features like this, kids of any ability level can enjoy swinging, and adults of any ability level can help kids use the swing.
Often, kids who use mobility devices can’t access traditional playground equipment, limiting their play options and excluding them from activities. Luckily, several inclusive handicap and wheelchair-accessible playground components allow all kids to enjoy the fun. For example, merry-go-rounds are a perennially popular playground component, though some kids can’t ride.
With an accessible whirl, kids of all ability levels can spin with others. Accessible playground components like this are even with the playground surfacing and feature safety rails and a seat to allow wheelchair users and kids or adults without mobility devices to enjoy the fun together.
4. Modify Playground Equipment
For pre-existing playgrounds or playground designers on a tight budget, there are other ways you can modify aspects of your playground to become more inclusive. Extra-wide slides can be easier for kids of all ability levels to enjoy and won’t require an entire playground renovation. While traditional playground steps and stairs to higher levels of the playground are not challenging for kids who are typically developing to navigate, they may serve as barriers for other kids. More accessible climbing stairs with traction allow kids of all ages and abilities to climb.
Another way to modify your playground equipment is to elevate ground-level play options like a sandbox. Sandboxes are fun play options, though some kids may struggle to bend down or kneel to play. Creating a standing sandbox that kids with wheelchairs or other physical limitations can easily reach without having to bend over allows them to play alongside their classmates. You may also consider elevating gardens so all kids can observe plants and bugs and discover new things.
Arguably one of the easiest ways you can modify an existing playground is by switching out a belt seat swing for an accessible swing seat. With numerous types of accessible swing seats, you’ll be adding variety to your playground while also creating a more inclusive playspace.
5. Add Sensory Elements
Sensory playground components are a great way to foster inclusivity on your playground. Sensory experiences are crucial for a child’s healthy development, so adding them to your playground is beneficial and fun. Kids get sensory experiences through most aspects of play, but children benefit from different levels of sensory stimulation. Additionally, kids with autism may struggle with sensory issues. Nearly one in 44 kids is on the autism spectrum, making this an essential aspect to consider when designing inclusive playgrounds for schools.
There are several ways to encourage sensory play for all kids to foster an inclusive school playground. Sensory play panels are similar to activity panels, though they aim to engage a child’s senses. For example, play panels that feature bells, chimes, drums or other noisemakers engage a child’s auditory senses. Slides with rollers, swings and spinners are also fun ways to create sensory experiences for kids of all abilities.
6. Create a Quiet Space
Playgrounds are hubs for high levels of activity and noise. While many children love using their “outside voices” on the playground, some kids may become overstimulated with all the loud activity. Kids with sensory processing disorders can quickly get overwhelmed when trying to process and respond to various stimuli, which is why quiet spaces are necessary for playground design.
Quiet spaces provide kids with a small escape where they can collect themselves and sit still with their thoughts for a bit. More personal spaces like corners or pods like the Cozy Cocoon from Playworld allow kids to regroup while still enjoying the playground.
Quiet spaces can benefit all kids, as some kids who are typically developing prefer quieter activities. With this in mind, you may choose to create a larger quiet area that encourages reflective and creative play. For example, you may consider a garden area with benches or an outdoor craft area. Areas for quieter activities allow kids to process their experiences or choose a different form of play based on their preferences.
7. Consider the Adults’ Needs
When designing your school playground with inclusivity in mind, it’s essential to remember that kids aren’t the only ones who will use the playground. Remember to consider the needs of the adult monitors, teachers, parents and other caregivers who may be accessing the playground with the kids. Remember, the adults caring for children can also have a range of ability levels. Don’t forget about them when considering inclusivity and accessibility.
Adults need access to the playground just as much as the kids do. To create an inclusive environment for all adults, ensure there is enough space around and between equipment components so the adults can reach the kids when they need help. While this was likely a consideration when designing for kids with mobility devices, think about grownups as well.
Incorporating amenities into the playground design is another way to plan for the adults’ needs. Creating a comfortable seating area for them to observe the kids can improve the playground experience for adults. Create areas with benches and shade structures for adults to gather and watch the kids play. When designing seating areas, make sure to place them where adults will have an uninterrupted sightline to the playground.
8. Points for Interaction
While we can do our best to create the most inclusive playground for all kids, it’s challenging to create a playground where everyone can do everything. The best way to overcome this challenge is with points for interaction. Multiple kids with varying ability levels can simultaneously use these specific playground components. Because several kids can use these playground features, they become areas that encourage kids of all abilities to interact and play with each other. Interaction points help reduce exclusion and segregation based on ability level.
Playground components that accommodate lots of children are the best areas for interaction points because they encourage social play. When playing in close contact with others, kids are more likely to begin a conversation and play together. This encourages the development of valuable social skills and teaches kids to be accepting of others with differences.
Talk horns are an excellent option to use when creating interaction points. Playworld’s Babble-On product features two horns connected with tubes that can run across a playground or to different levels of a jungle gym. When kids talk into one end, someone on the other end can hear them. Other components for multiple kids that can encourage interaction include:
- Game panels
- Extra-wide slides
Points for interaction can also challenge kids based on their ability level. For example, placing an accessible swing among traditional swings lets kids with various abilities to interact during play. This aspect of interaction points makes them vital to inclusion on the playground.
Benefits of Inclusive School Playgrounds
Playgrounds in general provide many advantages for growing kids. While kids are playing, making friends and having fun, they’re developing valuable skills and encouraging their bodies to grow, all while spending time outside. While inclusive playgrounds for schools benefit all kids, they’re especially a boon for kids with disabilities. Though it’s far from an exhaustive list, the inclusive playground benefits below will help you consider why inclusivity is crucial to extend beyond the classroom and onto the playground.
Encourages Cognitive and Physical Development
One of the best parts about inclusive playgrounds is that they help kids develop essential cognitive and physical skills in a way that feels like playing and having fun. Inclusive playgrounds allow all kids to exercise both their minds and bodies. As kids participate in unstructured play, they develop behavioral skills like taking turns and sharing, problem-solving skills like conflict resolution, social skills like communication and sensory skills like identifying different colors and sounds.
Inclusive play also helps kids of all abilities develop motor skills and muscle strength. Playground components that require kids to use their hands and fingers help improve hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills. Other components may challenge kids to balance themselves, coordinate muscle movements or require long durations of muscle use, helping build endurance.
All these cognitive and physical developments are critical for kids to have as they grow, and inclusive playgrounds help kids with disabilities form these skills in an unstructured setting.
Promote Healthy Lifestyles
Playgrounds can help kids form a healthy lifestyle from an early point in their lives. Kids who are typically developing have a significantly higher number of options for healthy habits, whether from using traditional playground equipment, playing sports or partaking in other play activities. Kids with disabilities are at a higher risk for obesity than kids who are typically developing. Inclusive playgrounds make it easier for typically developing kids and those with disabilities to get the appropriate 60 minutes of physical activity per day.
Inclusive playground equipment and activities encourage kids with disabilities to develop a desire to participate in physical activity during their childhood, which increases the likelihood they’ll continue to be active through adulthood.
Build Social Skills
Inclusive playgrounds encourage the development of many valuable skills, including social skills. Through play, young kids of all abilities learn how to share ideas using verbal and nonverbal communication. Kids learn how to act around other kids their age and how to work together. Inclusive playgrounds teach kids how to cooperate, compromise, respect others, use manners and listen to others.
Kids of all abilities must develop social skills as they continue school and grow up. Social skills are something they’ll take with them for their entire lives, and playgrounds are one of the best places for kids to practice and refine these skills.
Encourage Everyone to Play
Above all, inclusive school playgrounds create an environment that fosters playing and learning. With an inclusive playground, all kids can find an activity that appeals to them and challenges their abilities so they can grow into strong and independent individuals. Most kids with disabilities spend much of their time with parents, caregivers, aides, therapists or other helpers. Inclusive playgrounds provide a place for kids of all abilities to learn independence, take risks and challenge themselves in a safe space.
Inclusive playgrounds allow kids of all abilities to play side by side. This aspect of inclusive play promotes a stronger understanding in kids of each other’s differences. When surrounded by kids who are different, a child develops empathy, which helps reduce prejudices and helps create a more welcoming school environment. As kids become more accepting of others’ differences, they’ll build more friendships.
The best inclusive playgrounds designs create an engaging and challenging environment for every child in the school. Inclusive playgrounds should allow kids to grow with the playground. That means the school playground should be fun and exciting for kids, whether they’re in first grade or sixth grade.
Design an Inclusive School Playground With Playworld
Whether you’re creating a new playground with a generous budget or are looking to improve your current playground, inclusion is attainable for all playground projects. At Playworld, inclusion has been part of our expertise for several decades, which means we know a thing or two about creating an inclusive space for all kids. If you’re looking for design guides and tips, more training on inclusion or extensive inclusive playground solutions, we can help you find what you’re looking for.
Browse our extensive selection of inclusive playground equipment and contact us for a quote or more information today.