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Feature Article - July 2017

Something for Everyone

Inclusive, Multigenerational Playgrounds Have Broad Reach

By Deborah L. Vence


If you look back 30 years or more, the standard playground backdrop probably looked like this: a tall metal slide, a teeter-totter, wooden swings, animal springers and monkey bars. Those same types of features are still around, albeit a bit more modified, but one of the most significant developments is the appeal and function modern playgrounds have for children of all abilities and ages. Today, inclusive and multigenerational playgrounds boast components that connect with everyone, from the very young to those of older generations, no matter their abilities.

"Inclusive and multigenerational are becoming synonymous as we are designing for people of all ages and all abilities," said John McConkey, director of market insights for a Delano, Minn.-based commercial playground manufacturer. "So, features and characteristics that promote inclusion are also serving people of all ages from early childhood to grandparents."

The idea behind inclusive playgrounds is that they bring mainstream children together with children who have special needs.

"Fortunately, awareness of the ways in which environments can be made accessible has grown exponentially. Advocacy efforts and legislation [have] facilitated these positive changes," said Zoe Mallioux, a pediatric occupational therapist who specializes in child development, sensory integration, autism, test development and occupational therapy.

"Autism advocacy is also changing awareness and societal trends toward more 'sensory friendly' experiences and environments," she added. "So, through these efforts and trends, playgrounds are increasingly universally accessible to individuals of all abilities."

Multigenerational playgrounds are meant to draw people of all different age brackets. "Humans are designed to play throughout our lifetime, and a multigenerational playground creates opportunities for people of all ages to realize the benefits of play together," said Kent Callison, director of marketing for a commercial playground equipment manufacturer in Fort Payne, Ala.

Inclusive Trends

Current trends in inclusive play are moving beyond accessibility, designing play spaces that address the needs of every child, as well as creating opportunities for people of all ages to play together.

"Inclusive play used to focus on accessibility. Specifically, the effort was to ensure a play environment was accessible by children with a physical disability," Callison said. "This is important, and it is required by DOJ Accessibility Guidelines for public parks and play spaces, but access alone does not guarantee inclusion. Truly inclusive play includes access, but it also considers a much wider range of needs—beyond physical disability."

Out of 1,000 children between the ages of 3 and 21, about 85 will have some type of disability. "For example, one of those children will have a physical disability and 41 will have a cognitive disability. But numbers like one or 41, or even 85 out of 1,000 don't really give a full picture of the population of children affected by a disability," Callison said.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, about 6.6 million children in the United States are affected by some type of disability (physical, sensory, chronic health condition, social-emotional, communication, cognitive). "What makes a play space inclusive, however, is creating a space that addresses the needs of those 6.6 million children, as well as every other child in the country," he said.

The idea is to create a space that enables every child to play together and fully participate in a variety of activities that are mutually beneficial.

"And, while the primary audience of a play area is children, an inclusive play space should be a multigenerational environment that allows people of all ages and abilities to play and recreate with friends and families," Callison added.

Dan Perreault, a play advocate, licensed landscape architect and certified inclusive play specialist for a Lewisburg, Pa.-based commercial playground equipment manufacturer, said trends he sees include "Co-locating play activities with different challenge levels into a play pod; separating passive and active play areas; more equipment that meets the needs of children in the autism spectrum; utilizing an orientation path throughout the play space; [and] perimeter containment."

McConkey added that "Universal Design principles and goals, when implemented in playground design, empower diverse populations by improving human performance, health and wellness, and social participation." Good universal design trends include not only the amenities (shade, seating, safety features, restrooms, etc.), but also the play experiences… "play activities that allow users to explore cognitive, physical, social and sensory play, as well as adult exercise activities, hidden discovery elements, and seek-and-find scavenger hunt types of games," he said.

For example, an all-inclusive playground, called Madison's Place, in Woodbury, Minn., was created through the Madison Claire Foundation, which was established by Dave and Dana Millington whose daughter, Madison, died in 2004 after battling spinal muscular atrophy.

Dana Millington wanted the first project of the foundation to be an inclusive playground.

"There was not a playground in our community that she could access. After our loss, I decided to create a foundation to pick projects that would help other families with children with disabilities. Madison's Place is our third foundation project and our first inclusive playground project. It took seven years of fundraising to raise the $830,000 needed to build Madison's Place," Millington said.

The entire play structure at Madison's Place is fully ramped, allowing access to every facet of the playground.

"This is a key component as it gives every child or parent that may have a physical disability the opportunity to explore every piece of the playground," she said.