We know that play helps children develop emotionally, physically, socially, and cognitively. Spaces expressly created for the purpose of play, such as school or community playgrounds, provide important conduits for children’s well-being.
But what if a disability makes it harder for a child to join in on the playground? If a space is only equipped with slides and swings that aren’t geared toward children with disabilities, it’s unlikely they or their parents will spend much time there.
In 2010, the U.S. government began to require that play areas be accessible to people with disabilities, such as by supplying entry paths for wheelchairs and ensuring a certain number of ground-level activities. While this was a positive step, the regulation only went so far. “We always say it’s the worst you can do,” jokes Sherril York, the executive director of the National Center on Accessibility.
In fact, only a small number of people with a disability deal with mobility issues—around 5 percent. The rest may have, for example, cognitive or sensory disabilities, or be on the autism spectrum. For these children, ramp access to a playground or basic ground-level equipment are probably not going to make much of a difference, because initial entry and the height of play elements weren’t the obstacles in the first place.
The solution: inclusive playgrounds
Inclusive playgrounds, which are designed for children of all abilities, have different levels and types of equipment so no one is left out of the fun.
Building such playgrounds, either from scratch or by remodeling existing play areas, has been on the rise over the past decade. From Minneapolis to Orlando, communities and cities are finding ways to pay for these projects, which often run in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Concerned parents often spur community organizations, such as a PTA, or their municipality to raise revenue from local, state, federal, or other funds for recreational facilities and equipment.
Inclusive playgrounds encourage three genres of play: physical, social, and sensory. Sensory play is particularly important for children on the autism spectrum, who often have issues with sensory processing. This means that they feel either overstimulated or understimulated by their senses—and as a result shun or seek out certain sensations.
These children can, for instance, become overstimulated by loud noises and need to retreat from commotion. An inclusive playground may anticipate such a need through supplying cozy, quiet spaces to escape to—but also by setting up a perimeter fence so that if a child suddenly bolts, they won’t retreat into harm’s way, such as into a busy road. Activities with music, lights, or certain physical experiences—like rocking or spinning—also provide sensations these children might crave.
Inclusive playgrounds also aim to create connections among children of different abilities. This is done by grouping together different levels of one type of equipment. For instance, the playground might feature two pieces of spinning equipment—one that a child can sit on, and one that requires standing. These pieces would be placed near each other so that a child who can only use the one with the seat will be in close proximity to a child using the other. The idea is that such a layout increases the chances that the children will become familiar with each other, fostering compassion and empathy.
These spaces are also being designed for the varying abilities and needs of caregivers. “Children are only going to be at the playground as long as the parent or grandparent is comfortable,” says Ian Proud, the Market Research and Inclusive Play Manager for Playworld Systems, a Pennsylvania-based playground equipment manufacturer.
To that end, inclusive spaces might feature comfortable benches (with backs), shady areas—which also benefit children whose medications make them sensitive to the sun—or even sensory gardens around the perimeter, which provide both a different option for play and a space that is pleasant for caregivers.
But are inclusive playgrounds falling short?
Today’s playgrounds are already known for being less adventurous than their predecessors and perhaps in need of a little more risk so that children have the opportunity to assess and make decisions about danger.
Do inclusive playgrounds, for all their benefits, exacerbate this issue? Proud says that inclusive playgrounds are in fact particularly thoughtful in this regard. “Inclusive playgrounds provide multiple levels of challenge,” he says. “You need equipment for the entry level all the way to the other end of the spectrum, for the very spatially aware and active child—and the spinning or climbing elements meant for that child must actually be challenging, not just take a nominal stab at it.”
Jen DeMelo of KaBOOM!, a non-profit that helps communities build playgrounds, adds that the playground industry is coming out with innovative designs that provide such challenges. “New spinning elements are now available that weren’t before,” she says, “and the merry-go-round is making a comeback.” A playground in Marion, Iowa, for instance, features three types of spinning equipment, two of which—the “vortex” and the “twister”—offer challenging experiences (especially the twister).
York of the National Center on Accessibility notes that challenges can be incorporated into a playground—inclusive or otherwise—by giving children the perception of risk, even if the activity isn’t actually dangerous. A castle structure that encourages imagined adventure is one strategy, she says, as is covering a play space with ground surfacing that has enough give to protect a child from a falling injury.
At the end of the day, the amount of thought and effort going into these play areas is an encouraging sign for those fighting for the rights of the vulnerable. “An inclusive playground is a statement about making the world a better place,” says Proud. “It’s about social justice.”