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 vital in their development and a key factor in understanding the world around them.
Playgrounds restricted in their ability levels, activities and inclusion opportunities can pose challenges for many kids and families. Even playgrounds that meet accessibility requirements often fall short of the broader goal of inclusion.
Here, we’ll explain how inclusive playgrounds are beneficial and reasons to build one in your community. These play spaces can bring communities together, further children’s development and help everyone achieve a sense of belonging.
What Does Inclusive Play Mean?
Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) guidelines require all playgrounds to be accessible. Generally, this means they must feature pathways, proper surfacing and other practical measures to make the space more physically accessible for users with disabilities. Most measures aim specifically at wheelchair accessibility from the parking lot to the playground.
Accessibility is an important starting point, but it falls short of inclusivity. Some playground designs that are considered accessible still don’t offer some users the same level of fun and engagement as they provide others. Inclusivity is a more comprehensive goal for playground design.
What Is an Inclusive Playground?
An inclusive playground is a comfortable, accessible play area accommodating kids with various physical, mental and learning abilities. It’s a welcoming and inviting space for every child, parent and family.
Inclusive playgrounds go beyond accessibility opportunities for physical challenges. They welcome and engage kids and adults with a wide range of abilities. For example, kids with visual or intellectual disabilities may find even an accessible playground to be geared primarily toward children who don’t share their needs. Inclusive parks are designed with all users in mind, so no one should feel like the space is incompatible with their abilities and interests.
Inclusive play areas benefit users of all abilities, including those that would be able to enjoy the features of more standard playground designs. Play-for-all playgrounds bring communities together, making each person feel valued and understood.
People with sensory processing disorders, language and auditory challenges, and mobility devices can all enjoy the playground’s diverse design. Everyone deserves the opportunity to play and have fun, and that’s what these inclusive spaces aim to convey.
Inclusive playgrounds typically consist of these eight key components:
- Sensory-rich details: The playground should incorporate activities engaging the different sensory systems. This includes auditory, visual, proprioceptive, vestibular and tactile.
- The “coolest thing”: Determine which piece of equipment kids will be most excited about. Ensure this activity is usable and accessible for everyone.
- Fencing: A contained area aims to help keep kids from wandering off.
- Zones: Locating similar equipment types in the same area promotes engagement between kids of diverse skills and abilities. These areas can be identified through orientation pathways, which guide visitors to different play areas. Furthermore, zones help establish specialized areas of play. For instance, including a quiet zone provides a space for children to retreat when they become overstimulated by noise or activity.
- Social play: Inclusive playgrounds should offer play events that stimulate the imagination, along with parallel and cooperative play. Cooperative play involves working together to play a game. Parallel play involves kids playing adjacent to each other without interrupting the other.
- Multiple levels of challenge: You can incorporate activities with challenge levels that gradually increase. This promotes active engagement for all ages and abilities on the playground.
- Routes and maneuverability: Be sure to widen travel routes through and around the playground. This allows people using wheelchairs to pass, get close to activities and transfer onto equipment.
- Unitary surfacing: Protective playground surfacing creates a shock-absorbing surface for visitors. Surfacing falls into two main classifications — unitary and loose. Unitary surfacing is more suitable for inclusive parks, as it helps people with wheelchairs pass each other, turn and get to the activities more seamlessly. Unitary surfacing makes it easier for strollers and wheelchairs to enter and navigate the playground.
Why Are Inclusive Parks Important?
Disabilities and personal challenges come in all shapes and sizes. Whether a child uses a wheelchair for mobility or has autism spectrum disorder (ASD), 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 the best practices for creating inclusive playgrounds can make this hospitable play environment a reality.
Let’s look more closely at some of the wonderful benefits of inclusive parks.
1. Provides Fun, Social Environments
Playing with others is an important part of how children develop social skills, which continue to benefit them into adulthood. Through social play, kids can learn how to:
- Communicate their ideas.
- Include and listen to others.
- Resolve conflicts.
- Take turns and share.
- Recognize others’ needs and emotions.
Inclusive playgrounds are an excellent place for social play. They create a space for all children to come together and feel comfortable.
Some popular types of playground equipment — like merry-go-rounds and seesaws — are designed for group play. Besides the fun of spinning or bouncing, these activities involve a social element. In addition to installing group play equipment, playground designers can arrange equipment suited to kids with different abilities near each other. This can facilitate more social interaction between children of all abilities.
Though social skills and development look different for every child, all kids can benefit from the range of social opportunities inclusive playgrounds provide. Humans need a balance of social interaction and alone time, and kids are no different. A child may prefer to play by themselves one day, then with a large group the next.
An inclusive playground offers plenty of solo and group play opportunities to fulfill both of these needs. All children, including those who have trouble with socialization, can find activities that appeal to them.
Because parks lend themselves well to social play, parents often take their kids to the playground to help them meet and interact with other children. Parents and caregivers know the degree to which their kids can engage with their peers, and they 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 advance a child’s social skills.
As children interact on the playground, they’ll have fun while learning valuable social skills in a 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. Familial relationships are important in a person’s life. Kids especially benefit from close relationships with their parents, siblings and other relatives.
Going to the playground is a great way for families to set aside their devices and worries, being in the moment with each other. Kids and parents alike can enjoy some fresh air and active play.
Additionally, many traditional playgrounds are only enjoyable for some members of the family. That often means the whole family doesn’t go together. A family raising children with different abilities may not have somewhere they can all go without one or more people sitting off to the side. An inclusive playground accommodates various ages, skill levels and interests, providing activities for the whole family to enjoy.
The more inclusive the playground, the more it can bring families 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, such as 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 for adults and children alike.
3. Encourages Community Engagement
In addition to bringing families together, inclusive playgrounds can connect whole communities. 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 methods is an outdoor recreation space for inclusive play.
These public spaces can help families who attend different schools form connections, for instance. That also includes 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 kids in their town. An inclusive playground can become the centerpiece of a connected community.
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 kids of all ages benefit from this community engagement. Engaged communities are generally happier and more trusting. They 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. Kids with higher self-esteem are more likely to achieve their personal and academic goals and enjoy positive relationships with their parents and peers.
However, some children struggle with their sense of self-worth and confidence. In many cases, kids that act out in negative ways are experiencing low self-esteem.
Self-esteem issues can be especially challenging for kids with disabilities. One study found that youth with ASD self-reported lower levels of self-esteem than their peers without ASD. Anything that makes a child feel different from their peers can cause them to internalize negative thoughts about themselves.
No child should suffer from low self-esteem because they don’t feel like they fit in. An inclusive playground helps combat this problem by making all users feel equally valued. Inclusive design tailors the space to all of its users, meeting their needs rather than making them feel deficient.
The activities kids engage in on the playground can help build their confidence. For example, when a child gets up the courage to go down the slide for the first time, or learns how to swing on their own, they often experience a sense of pride.
Each time a child tries something new or enjoys a positive interaction with their peers at the playground, it can provide an excellent self-esteem boost.
5. Promotes Sensory Play for All Abilities and Ages
Inclusive playgrounds can also provide rich and varied sensory experiences. With the right design choices, a playground can engage all of the senses, including:
- Tactile: For people with visual impairments, the sense of touch can take on heightened importance. Inclusive playgrounds should include a variety of textural experiences to engage users’ sense of touch. These additions might include a sandbox kids can play in, a rope they can grasp and climb on, or water play areas.
- Auditory: For kids 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 kids to enjoy.
- Visual: 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 by including activities, such as matching or memory games, that help kids 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 parks can engage users’ senses of smell and taste in fun ways. Consider planting a garden alongside the playground where children can smell flowers and herbs, or even sample fruits and vegetables under adult supervision. 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 helps them sense the location and movement of their body parts. This information comes from the muscles and joints. Any equipment that encourages kids to move and stretch their bodies can engage their proprioception sense. Inclusive parks should allow people to engage this sense as they are able. For example, kids using wheelchairs should have a way to move and engage their arms on the playground.
All-inclusive playgrounds should also take children with sensory processing disorders into account in their design. Be sure to give these kids a more peaceful spot to retreat to if they become overwhelmed or anxious by their surroundings.
Wayfinding is another consideration regarding senses and inclusivity. Ensure the playground is navigable for children with different sensory abilities. This includes using wide pathways to lead kids 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 is more dynamic than a completely homogenous community.
While many communities view 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 commitment to diversity and inclusion for all of its citizens.
This commitment can set the tone for a whole community. It helps members become more aware of the diverse abilities represented in their community, along with 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 kids without disabilities to meet their peers with disabilities. This can create a positive exchange leading to greater awareness, deeper understanding and enhanced empathy. 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.
7. Provides a Unique Play Experience
An all-inclusive playground isn’t a typical attraction in many areas. People may be unfamiliar with this concept or don’t know it exists. Finding playgrounds that accommodate multiple needs can also be challenging in some parts of the country.
By incorporating an inclusive design, you can distinguish your community as a welcoming space for families and offer a unique play experience. Inclusive parks can be a potentially major draw for residents and visitors alike.
These play spaces can also warrant news stories sharing their uniqueness and inclusivity opportunities. Chances are, caregivers will appreciate the interaction opportunities for their kids. They may even use this playground as a deciding factor in moving to that community or choosing that school district.
8. Promotes Physical Activity and Exercise
While elementary-aged kids need at least an hour of physical activity each day, studies show that only 24% of developing children obtain the recommended amount of exercise. Some schools even limit recess time to ensure sufficient time for classes. These reductions often result in students not getting enough physical activity during school days.
Without an opportunity for outdoor free play, kids may be deprived of the important benefits of regular physical activity. Fortunately, playgrounds provide an enjoyable way to achieve this exercise needed for healthy growth and development.
By integrating an inclusive playground into your community, you can encourage kids of all abilities to engage in active play, improving their physical and mental well-being. Children who receive sufficient exercise each day are at a lower risk of obesity, as well as:
- High cholesterol and blood pressure
- Heart disease
- Sleep apnea
By providing more opportunities for physical activity and active play, we can help build a generation of healthy adults.
9. Encourages Creativity and Innovation
Aside from the physical benefits of active play and engagement, kids can also develop their creativity through inclusive playgrounds. Children build various skills when playing, and these activities encourage them to use their imaginations. Playing provides a sense of freedom and creativity, allowing kids to set their own rules and think outside of the box.
For instance, a child might pretend a slide is a portal to another world. When using a swing, they could imagine they’re riding a roller coaster or a flying vehicle. Kids can also craft creative scenarios around these objects. They might be using the slide to reach a cavern with buried treasure.
While riding a merry-go-round, they might pretend they’re a cowboy on a horse. Another child might imagine a playground fort as a secret clubhouse, treehouse, or even a castle or palace. The more kids occupying the space, the more rich and diverse their collective stories become. They can also build off each other’s games and scenarios, enhancing the creative opportunities all the more.
The innovative possibilities are limitless when it comes to inclusive playgrounds. Inclusive parks foster creative outlets and environments for kids, allowing their imaginations to run wild.
10. Creates Cohesiveness
It’s important for children to connect with people from different backgrounds, and some may not receive this opportunity in school. Inclusive playgrounds expose kids to those unlike themselves, encouraging them to interact and form friendships.
When a child visits an inclusive park, they can meet people from various backgrounds, including physical and mental abilities, cultures, ethnicities, economics and other unique attributes. They can learn about each other’s differences while finding unity through common ground.
Their parents can connect with one another, as well. Forming these connections enables a more cohesive community among children and caregivers alike.
11. Enables More Kids to Use the Playground
Inclusive parks offer opportunities for kids of all abilities to use the equipment, ensuring no one feels excluded. As mentioned previously, a primary element of inclusive play spaces is the “coolest thing.” This means everyone can enjoy the most popular piece of equipment without feeling left out. When you appeal to a broader range of children, you invite more visitors to the play site.
If your goal is to target a wider audience and draw more people to your park, an inclusive playground allows everyone to have fun. Kids can freely participate in activities and feel understood, no matter their background, skills, strengths and abilities.
12. Reduces Isolation
Families with kids who have disabilities can feel overwhelmed at times. From medical care to financial responsibilities, various factors can cause stress.
Many of these families find themselves confined to their homes with minimal social interaction, which can lead to feelings of loneliness and isolation. Social isolation is often linked to mental health problems like depression, anxiety, stress and low self-esteem.
Inclusive playgrounds give families a great opportunity to enjoy a fun outing. Children can unwind and enjoy engaging activities together, while their caregivers can interact with fellow adults. Siblings of kids who have disabilities can also enjoy more socialization opportunities.
With inclusive parks, no one has to experience seclusion or isolation. Everyone can enjoy a fun space to make connections and build friendships.
13. Teaches Kids Valuable Lessons
Through inclusive playgrounds, children can learn valuable life lessons and morals, which they can carry with them for life. For instance, meeting people with different developmental abilities can help kids build empathy.
By having conversations and listening to others’ stories, kids learn more about their experiences in life. In turn, they become more understanding and empathetic of the challenges people face.
When kids make friends with those who are different from them, they become more sensitive to their feelings and needs. By picking up on their cues, they can understand when another child is struggling and help them accordingly.
For example, a child with ASD may need a break from playing due to overstimulation. A sensitive and empathetic child can understand and respect this need. Caregivers may also notice this kindness reflected at home.
Inclusive playgrounds also teach kids about equity. Equity is the idea of giving everyone access to what they need to be happy and successful. Inclusive parks promote equity by allowing everyone to enjoy the same experiences, regardless of their abilities. These play spaces include activities with different challenge levels, enabling all kids to have fun while enjoying the rewarding feeling of overcoming a challenge.
Partner With Playworld to Plan Your Inclusive Playground
At Playworld, we are committed to helping communities make inclusive parks a reality. That way, all members of the community can enjoy a fun place to interact and play.
We provide a wealth of information and practical guidance on designing 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.
You can even work with a certified representative in inclusive play in your area. If you want to become a certified inclusive playground designer yourself, we also make that possible 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.
You’ll find an array of inclusive playground equipment at Playworld, accommodating users of many backgrounds, skills and abilities. Whether slides, climbers, steppers — or even playground furnishings like benches, picnic tables and shade structures — we can help supply you with inclusive park necessities.
When you partner with Playworld to create your inclusive playground, 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. Contact us today to learn more about our offerings or partner with us!