The Importance of Inclusive Playgrounds

Little girl climbing play equipment

According to Article 31 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of a Child, every child has a right to engage in play. It is a vital part of children’s development and a key factor in how they come to understand the world around them.

Unfortunately, many children are unable to reap the benefits of play or engage in the activity due to the nature of most parks and playgrounds across the country. Playgrounds that are only designed with certain ability levels in mind can exclude many children and families who have the same desire and need to play and participate in community life. Even playgrounds that meet the requirements of accessibility often fall short of the broader goal of inclusion. Creating inclusive playgrounds is a worthy goal since it offers many benefits.

Here, we’ll explain how inclusive playgrounds are beneficial so you can determine why to build an inclusive playground in your community. These play spaces can bring whole communities together, helping those with disabilities have fun, further their development and feel a true sense of belonging, and helping others in the community embrace the values of diversity and inclusion.

What Does Inclusive Play Mean?

As a landscape architect or an official from the parks industry, you might envision planning a destination that unites and brings joy to people from all walks of life. The first step toward doing that is understanding the concept of inclusivity and the difference between “inclusive” versus “accessible” when it comes to playground design.

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) guidelines demand that all playgrounds be accessible. Generally, this means playgrounds must feature pathways, safe surfacing and other practical measures to make the space more physically accessible for users with disabilities. Most measures are aimed specifically at wheelchair accessibility from the parking lot to the playground itself.

Accessibility is an important starting point, particularly for people with different modes of mobility, but it falls short of inclusivity. Some playground designs that are considered accessible may still exclude some users or fail to offer them the same level of fun and engagement as they offer other users. This is why accessibility isn’t enough — inclusivity is a more comprehensive goal for playground design. We have the opportunity to go further than accessibility and create truly inclusive playgrounds.

Inclusive playgrounds go beyond making provisions for those with physical disabilities to get into the playground. Inclusive playgrounds are welcoming and engaging spaces for children and adults with a wide range of abilities. This includes, for example, children with visual impairments or intellectual disabilities who may find even an accessible playground to be designed primarily with children who can hear or are typically developing in mind. Inclusive playgrounds are designed with all users in mind, so no one should feel the playground is incompatible with their abilities and interests.

Inclusive play equipment

Inclusive play areas are beneficial to all users, including those that would be able to enjoy all the features of more standard playground designs. Inclusive playgrounds bring communities together and make each person feel valued and understood.

Why Are Inclusive Playgrounds Important?

Understanding the definition of inclusive play spaces is important, but why do we need inclusive playgrounds? Playground designers should prioritize inclusivity because it’s beneficial to many children and families. One in four adults has a disability. Disabilities are less common among children, but 4.3% of children have a disability, according to census data. That’s millions of children in the U.S. that may struggle to use a playground that isn’t designed with their specific needs in mind.

Remember that inclusive playgrounds should go beyond physical accessibility. This broader focus on inclusion is especially important for children since it is not physical but cognitive difficulties that are most common among children ages 5 and older. Education data sheds additional light on the prevalence of cognitive or developmental differences since 14% of students in public schools receive special education services.

Disabilities and personal challenges come in all shapes and sizes. Whether a child uses a wheelchair for mobility or has autism, the playground should be a welcoming space where they can be themselves and enjoy active play with their peers. Parents should also be able to join in the fun, regardless of their abilities and limitations. Following best practices for creating inclusive playgrounds can make this hospitable play environment a reality.

Disabled little boy on play equipment

Let’s look more specifically at some of the wonderful benefits of inclusive playgrounds. Creating these spaces can provide safe social environments, help families enjoy quality time together, encourage community engagement, enhance self-esteem, promote sensory play for all users and set a positive tone of inclusivity within a community.

1. Provides Safe Social Environments

One of the benefits of playgrounds is that they help children engage in social play. Social play includes any type of play where two or more children are interacting with each other.

Playing with others is an important part of how children develop social skills that continue to benefit them even into adulthood. For example, through social play, children can learn how to:

  • Communicate their ideas
  • Include and listen to others
  • Resolve conflicts
  • Take turns and share
  • Recognize others’ needs and emotions

Little girls playing with play panels

Playgrounds are an excellent place for social play, especially when they are inclusive. In certain environments, some children may feel they are at a disadvantage. Inclusive playgrounds create a space where children can come together and all feel comfortable.

Some popular types of playground equipment, like merry-go-rounds or seesaws, are designed for group play. In addition to the fun of spinning or bouncing, these activities are made more fun by the social element they involve. Along with installing equipment for group play, playground designers can arrange equipment suited to children with different abilities near each other to facilitate more social interaction between children of all abilities.

It’s important to note that social skills and development do not look the same for all children. To make playgrounds inclusive, we must also consider children for whom social play can be a challenge — such as those with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs). For these children, an inclusive playground should feature equipment for both group activities and for independent play.

Because playgrounds lend themselves well to social play, some parents may take their children to the playground to help them meet and interact with other children. Parents and caregivers know the degree to which their children can engage with their peers and can encourage this type of play as much as possible. Even something as simple as waiting in line to go down the slide can help a child advance their social skills.

As children interact on the playground, they’ll simply be having a good time, but all the while, they will be learning valuable social skills in a safe and supportive environment.

2. Offers Interactive Family Time

Social interactions with friends are important, but so are social interactions with family. Inclusive playgrounds can bring family members together, providing a space that promotes engagement and play for all, no matter their age. This engagement matters because familial relationships are some of the most important ones in a person’s life. Children, especially, benefit greatly from close relationships with their parents, siblings and other relatives.

NEOS 360 Accessible

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, modern families often felt they didn’t spend enough quality time together. While the pandemic has brought many challenges, it also had the effect of increasing family time. Research from Harvard University found that 68% of fathers felt closer to their kids after enjoying quality activities and conversations together in lockdown. In addition, family time during lockdown improved mental health in adolescents with mental illness. These studies show that in many instances, families could emerge from the pandemic with stronger bonds.

The disruption in school routines and work schedules meant that most families spent more time at home together. However, without planning quality time to engage with their children, it would be easy for parents to focus together time on homework and chores. Going to the playground can be a great way to help families set aside their devices and worries and be in the moment with each other. Kids and parents alike can enjoy some fresh air and active play — while social distancing, of course.

The more inclusive the playground, the more it can help families come together. If a parent has a physical disability, for example, they should still be able to spend time with their child at the playground, whether that includes joining them on a swing set or watching from a nearby picnic table while they chat with a spouse or other family member. Some inclusive playground designs can even be the perfect place for older adults, including grandparents, to join in the fun and physical activity.

Inclusive design is all about bringing people together, and in the case of families, that can be a major benefit to adults and children alike.

3. Encourages Community Engagement

In addition to bringing families together, inclusive playgrounds can bring whole communities together. All too often, communities share the goal of being engaged with one another but aren’t sure what practical steps they can take to make this idea a reality. There are many ways to foster community engagement, but one of the best is having an outdoor recreation space that is made for inclusive play.

These public spaces can help families who attend different schools, for example, form connections. That also includes the now more than 11% of students who are homeschooled. Homeschooled students typically do not have a traditional recess period where they can play with peers. A community playground provides the perfect place for them to make friends and enjoy playtime with other children in their town. An inclusive playground can become the centerpiece of a connected community.

Children interacting

No person should experience a barrier to participating in community life because of a disability or limitation. Inclusive play spaces make it possible for all members of the community to come together and interact. Adults and children of all ages benefit from this sort of community engagement. Engaged communities are generally happier and more trusting and share common goals and a vested interest in the well-being of their neighbors.

4. Increases Self-Esteem and Boosts Confidence

Self-esteem and confidence are key to a person’s well-being. Children with higher self-esteem are more likely to achieve their personal and academic goals and enjoy positive relationships with parents and peers. Unfortunately, some children struggle with their sense of self-worth and lack confidence. In many cases, children that act out in negative ways are experiencing low self-esteem. Low self-esteem can also lead to mental and emotional problems like depression.

Self-esteem issues can be especially problematic for children with disabilities. One study found that youth with ASD self-reported lower levels of self-esteem than their peers without ASD. Parents in this study also confirmed that their children had low self-esteem. Anything from a physical disability to a learning disability that makes a child feel different from their peers can cause them to internalize negative thoughts about themselves.

No child should suffer with low self-esteem because they don’t feel like they fit in. An inclusive playground combats this problem by making all users feel equally valued and valid. Inclusive design tailors the space to all its users so it meets their needs rather than making them feel somehow deficient.

The activities kids engage in on the playground can help them build their confidence further. For example, when a child gets up the courage to go down the slide the first time or learns how to swing on their own, they will swell with pride. Each time a child tries something new or simply enjoys a positive interaction with their peers at the playground, this can provide an excellent boost to their self-esteem.

Little boy smiling on play equipment

5. Promotes Sensory Play for All

Inclusive playgrounds can also provide rich and varied sensory experiences. With the right design choices, a playground can engage all the senses, including:

  • Tactile: The sense of touch lets young children receive feedback to learn about the world around them. For people with visual impairments, the sense of touch can take on heightened importance, regardless of age. Inclusive playgrounds should include a variety of textural experiences to engage users’ sense of touch. These additions might include a sandbox children can play in, a rope they can grasp and climb on or water play areas where they can get wet.
  • Auditory: Some people on the playground may have hearing impairments, but for children with auditory capabilities, the sense of sound can enhance their experience. For children with visual impairments, their auditory abilities become even more critical to understanding and enjoying their environment. Equipment with instrumental qualities can be especially fun for children to enjoy.
  • Visual: For children with a sense of sight, the visual sensory process is key. Seeing something is often the first piece of information we get before using our other senses to learn more. You don’t have to go far out of your way to make a playground visually engaging. Interesting colors and varied equipment can instantly engage children’s eyes. You can go a step further, though, by including activities such as matching or memory games that can help children develop their visual abilities.
  • Smell and taste: These senses are closely related since the sense of taste relies on a sense of smell to function properly. You may not think about these senses in the context of a playground, but inclusive playgrounds can engage users’ senses of smell and taste in safe and fun ways. Consider planting a garden alongside the playground where children can smell flowers and herbs. Proper inclusive signage can highlight these areas and explain how to interact with them.
  • Vestibular: The vestibular system involves a person’s sense of balance. Many playground activities can engage this system. Spinning equipment can stimulate different parts of a child’s brain simultaneously, helping them develop a more advanced sense of balance, muscle control and gross motor skills. Swinging, sliding, climbing and bouncing all have a similar effect. Inclusive playgrounds should make it possible for children with different abilities to engage their vestibular systems.
  • Proprioceptive: A person’s proprioceptive system is responsible for helping them sense the location and movement of their body parts. This information comes from the muscles and joints. Any equipment that encourages children to move and stretch their bodies can engage their proprioception sense. Inclusive playgrounds should allow people to engage this sense as they are able. For example, children using wheelchairs should have a way to move and engage their arms on the playground.

senses engaged at playground

All inclusive playgrounds should also take children with sensory processing disorders into account in their design. Make sure to give these children a more peaceful spot to retreat to if they become overwhelmed or anxious by their surroundings.

Another consideration when it comes to senses and inclusivity is wayfinding. Make sure that the playground is navigable for children with different sensory abilities. This includes using wide pathways to safely lead children to various parts of the playground.

6. Sets Community Standards

Today, many communities tout their commitment to diversity and inclusion, and with good reason. A diverse population that lives in harmony together is a more dynamic and caring society than a completely homogenous community or one where certain groups remain on the fringes. One study found that people in a racially diverse community tend to be more prosocial, identifying with all of humanity and lending a helping hand when it’s needed. In addition to race, there are other important forms of diversity, including ability diversity.

children playing together

While many communities see diversity and inclusion as worthy goals, they can sometimes fall short of putting these values into action. An inclusive playground can be a tangible way to demonstrate a community’s true commitment to diversity and inclusion for all its citizens. This commitment can set the tone for a whole community, helping all members become more aware of the diverse abilities represented in their community and the need to proactively include those who may otherwise find themselves on the outside of community life.

An inclusive playground can provide more opportunities for children without disabilities to meet their peers with disabilities, which can create a positive exchange leading to greater awareness, deeper understanding and enhanced empathy. Overall, when a community takes steps to make public spaces more accessible and inclusive, it establishes a positive standard that can encourage individuals in the community to follow suit.

Partner With Playworld to Plan Your Inclusive Playground

At Playworld, we are committed to helping communities make inclusive playgrounds a reality so all members of the community can enjoy a safe and fun place to interact and play. We put this commitment into action by providing a wealth of information and practical guidance on how to design inclusive playgrounds. Our brochure on the topic of inclusion is a great place to start. We also provide an in-depth guide on inclusive playground design that serves as a valuable resource for many in the industry.

View Inclusive Play Equipment

You can even work with a certified representative in inclusive play in your area. Or, if you want to become a certified inclusive playground designer yourself, we make that possible, too, through our inclusive play training.

When you’re ready to put your inclusive playground together, Playworld offers a variety of quality playground equipment designed to promote inclusivity and deliver all the benefits playgrounds can provide. When you partner with Playworld to help you create your inclusive playground, you can be sure you’re working with a company that shares your commitment to inclusion. It informs all that we do, and we’re eager to help communities like yours create inclusive play spaces so all children can enjoy their right to play.

wheelchair accessible ramp on play structure