United We Play

Creating Inclusive Play Spaces


Dee Nance has been a recreational therapist for 30 years, so her career mirrors the evolution of inclusive play.

A community services officer for the city of Hoover, Ala., Nance was heavily involved with the creation and installation of a $2 million play area that opened in May 2019. The 15,000-square-foot Explore Playground at the HooverMet Complex has been a magnet for not only families but communities throughout the South that are considering adding inclusive play.

"If anybody wants to know anything we're happy to share," said Nance.

The playground is a national demonstration site and warms the heart of Nance, whose chosen field and certification sprung from the country's desire to help injured World War II veterans.

"I've seen the transition from institutionalization to community," she said of recreation for kids with disabilities of all kinds. "Just because someone is born with a disability, you don't just put them in a room and lock them up. Now they're a part of the community and valuable citizens, and they're respected and understood.

"Parents are becoming more aware that there's opportunities for a child when they have a disability or a different look or different walk. Parents are becoming more involved, and the resources, while they're not perfect and they're not free, they're much better. There are early intervention programs for just about everything. Peers are more accepting. It's just a part of people they meet."

John McConkey, marketing insights manager for a Delano, Minn.-based play equipment manufacturer, said inclusivity is gaining popularity for practical reason as well. "We recognize that cities are fiercely competing to attract new businesses, an educated workforce and a sustainable tax base," he said. "To do that, they need to be known for offering a thriving, livable community. And they recognize their parks are a key asset to help attain that goal.


"Inclusively designed parks and playgrounds make them more functional and fun for more people. It increases social equity and makes cities more socially and economically sustainable. We believe all parks and play spaces should be designed to be as inclusive as possible."

Playground manufacturers have been on board the trend for quite some time. Using the research of Utah State University's Center for Persons with Disabilities, and taking what each community needs into consideration, companies can design and install structures that offer something for every disability.

"The market interest in inclusive play spaces continues to grow," said McConkey. "While we support the goal that all play spaces be as inclusive as possible, we recognize that it is ultimately the community that must define what 'inclusive' means to them and how they define it within the constraints of their project. We see more and more communities seeking to make their parks and play spaces more inclusive."

Start to Finish

According to Nance, Hoover's push for an inclusive playground began when a resident asked the mayor for one. The town had an accessible playground, said Nance, "with no real play value."

Nance reached out to the town's specialists, and asked for their ideal inclusive playgrounds and took their ideas to brainstorming sessions with a play equipment manufacturer and its local rep. She contacted user groups and nonprofits, and went as far as Omaha in an 11-playground tour to gather ideas. In all, the process took two years to Opening Day, she said.

"We went to programs that serve people of different disabilities and said, 'When you do therapy with these children and send them home, what do they need?' and they were very excited," Nance said. "We would not have been as inclusive had we not reached out to our community, to people who serve and people who use the equipment."

It's hard to imagine any stone was unturned: The Explore Playground has a multi-level, accessible treehouse named Carly's Clubhouse; accessible musical instruments; sensory play activities, including interactive panels with adaptive switches; and a variety of swings, slides and climbers.

The surface of the play area is rubber to provide accessible routes of travel throughout the space. There are shade structures on the playground equipment, as well as throughout the many seating areas. There are charging stations throughout the play environment so parents can charge communicative devices, wheelchairs and other mobility devices, or mobile phones.


The Rockin Robin is a cocoon-like chair for anyone who wants a comforting place to rest, and at the entrance there are ground tiles with sign language that says "Welcome to Explore," with English underneath the hand signs.

"We think through five developmental domains when designing a space: physical, social-emotional, cognitive, communication, and sensory," said Kent Callison, marketing director for the Fort Payne, Ala.-based playground manufacturer that Nance worked with to create the Explore Playground. "We look for ways to incorporate each of these elements into a play space so everyone can be included and enriched through the experience of play."

For those disturbed by loud noises, there are quiet, motorized paper towel dispensers in the restrooms. The restroom also includes a changing table with a capacity of 300 pounds, for families with an older child or an adult. The motorized table lowers to 12 inches for those who use a mobility device.


"People think of disability as physical; they don't think of visual impairments or hearing impairments," Nance said. "When building this playground, we were able to incorporate everything. We didn't target a population, we just made everything available for all abilities. We didn't say, 'You need a wheelchair swing, so go in this corner, you need a cozy zone so come over here.' Everywhere on the playground anyone can play, and that was very intentional."


Callison said his company helps communities with programming for their inclusive play areas with a guide called 2PlayTogether. It's a playground activity guide designed to foster friendships through inclusive play. It equips educators and programmers with tips and playground activities to promote meaningful play, understanding and fun between children with and without disabilities.


The guide includes disability awareness resources, character education tips, inclusive play activities for elementary school-age children, and inclusion research for educators, programmers and advocates.


Nance said there is no specific programming for the playground, but therapists are suggesting to their families to go to the playground because they can work on therapy goals without realizing it. Special education classes are visiting it as well, she said.


The playground is adjacent to a splashpad and Nance said last summer there were 25,000 people per month. In the colder months that number was 1,000.


"Projection-wise we knew because of the new location it would be a draw," Nance said. "It was marketed as a regional park, and it truly is regional. People have come two and a half hours and now they're looking at houses because of the facility to live here. It's been more than we ever expected."





McConkey said the most important contributions manufacturers make to inclusive play spaces is their open-mindedness and their wealth of data, like the results of empirical research to examine the true effect inclusive play has on the individuals and families that use inclusive play spaces.


"Research provides validation that the playground equipment design is meeting the needs of users, the inclusive play space design is providing therapeutic benefits to the users, and that the play space is engaging people of all abilities to interact, socialize and have fun playing together," he said.


McConkey's company is like other manufacturers that promote inclusive play: using expert suggestions and guides and research to inform design.


He said the most valuable information to determine if an inclusive play space is successful is to conduct research in the field. Did the play space encourage the target audience to come and play? Do the users find the play activities stimulating, engaging and fun? Are children of all abilities interacting and socializing with one another?


"Empirical research as well as observational research and user interviews all provide feedback and input to confirm the design of the play space is meeting the intended goals," he said. "Additionally, we've created an Inclusive Play Advisory Board, which brings together experts in the fields of child development, adaptive recreation, sensory play and occupational therapy. They have been specifically engaged to provide valued guidance for the development of new products, concepts and user experiences."


In the absence of research, or in addition to it, are the Seven Principles of Inclusive Playground Design, created by Utah State University's Center for Persons With Disabilities with PlayCore. They include:




>> Be Fair: Consider all disabilities: physical, cognitive, social/emotional, communicative, and sensory.


>> Be Included: Be sure the space is accessible by all means with ramps, climbers, links and transfer platforms.


>> Be Smart: Make the design simple and intuitive with behavioral clues, sensory feedback, organization, reinforced play patterns and clear expectations.


>> Be Independent: To encourage independent discovery, have accessible surfaces and routes of travel, and slide transfers.


>> Be Safe: Be sure that supervision areas are comfortable with clear sight lines, that there are cozy places to rest, and jump-in points.


>> Be Active: Encourage sustained physical activity, cooperation and socialization.


>> Be Comfortable: Provide space for movement and gathering, that is comfortable for diverse sensory needs, can be reached comfortably, and has relief from the environment.

Beyond the Basics


Sarah Lisiecki, with a Fond du Lac, Wis.-based playground manufacturer, said her company uses those principles and adds to them. Inclusive principles must also take age into account as a disability to be accommodated, she said, and it's important to mesh products and space design.


"Product and playspace design are the most important aspects we're involved with as it relates to inclusive play design, and they really go hand-in-hand," she said. "Without proper products, we won't be able to create a truly universally-designed space.


"However, if we have the best products and a design that isn't functional or equitable, it won't foster the types of situations that drive growth, interaction and engagement. Combining these two aspects creates the best possible outcomes for everyone."


Inclusive play environment requests have increased exponentially over the past five years, said Michele Chandler, marketing director for a Chattanooga, Tenn.-based playground manufacturer, and within that demand has been a higher demand for autism-friendly play areas and structures.


"Specific activities, such as spinners, merry-go-rounds, musical instruments and rocking motion types of equipment are appropriate for children with autism, as well as play environments that provide cozy spots where they can take a break from the activities going on around them," Chandler said.


Begin at the Beginning


Nance said the community raised $1.3 million of the $2 million needed for Explore, and the city provided the rest. But she stressed that not every community needs to spend that much.




"You can build on a smaller scale, so don't be afraid of size and money," she said.


Nance's advice to towns that are mulling an inclusive play space is to collaborate and find a manufacturer that prioritizes inclusivity and is flexible to a community's unique needs.


"Create a team, a committee, and include people who have experience with people with disabilities," she said. "Have a team of resources because you can't do it by yourself. Have a goal in mind, what you want to offer. Not everybody has the same goal."


She said many companies might say they can design and build inclusive structures and areas but don't deliver exactly what's necessary. Thus, the importance of gathering information from all stakeholders and experts before seeking a manufacturing partner. Nance suggests visits to inclusive playgrounds for ideas as well.


"I made very sure that this isn't a special needs playground," said Nance. "This is a playground for all people of all abilities. Someone said, 'We're going to need supervision out there all the time because we have people with disabilities,' and I said, 'Oh my gosh, are you kidding me? We have 27 parks and we don't supervise them.' It's education all the time."


Nance's last statement is another aspect to consider: Make sure the community understands what and who inclusion is for.


Callison said before a community calls a playground manufacturer, it should understand its role and the company's role. "Customers need to know this a collaborative process," he said. "We know the data. We understand the principles by which an inclusive playground is designed, but the customer knows the people who will use it better than anyone. We work together to make sure the play space we build has a long and lasting impact on the community. We want them to be involved, to share ideas, challenge us to do something extraordinary, and to make sure every person is well-served by the playground."


Chandler suggested prospective clients gather some information and answer some questions before picking up the phone:


>> The number of children both with and without disabilities that might be using the space.


>> The total area available for the play environment.


>> Access to the play environment. Will there be accessible pathways from the parking lot or other areas where the playground will be located?


>> What age ranges will be using the equipment?


>> Will adults be using the equipment?


>> Will the space require fencing?


>> Is there adequate shade from trees, or will additional shade be required?


McConkey added that a client should determine what it wants the play space to accomplish. What are their goals for the community? Can they identify the "ability demographic" for their community?


"This information is helpful in interpreting the community's needs and ultimately results in a design that reflects the community's vision," McConkey said.


In Hoover, Nance had all the information needed to get started, and the city and the manufacturer collaborated and tweaked until the final product was ready.




"Money didn't limit us," said Nance. "With the goal of being inclusive, we didn't have to leave out something to make it accessible or inclusive. We just made sure that what we used was usable by everybody or there was an opportunity for anybody to experience that same feeling on some kind of equipment."


The experience opened Nance's eyes, as experienced as they are. She realized ramps don't necessarily make an inclusive playground.


"I'm all about do it right the first time because when I go look at the playgrounds we didn't do right, it's ramped, it's accessible, but has no play value," she said. "The people are who win, the kids win, if you make a good product."


Callison said Hoover got a lot of things right. "There are two phrases we hear a lot lately: 'All Means All' and 'For Us, By Us,'" he said. "Customers want to make sure everyone has a chance to play, and to realize the benefits of active, social play. And people who support and advocate for persons with disabilities want to be involved with the design process.


"In Hoover, parents and families with children affected by a disability worked closely with the city leaders to ensure there were play activities and amenities specific to their needs, and to make sure all children could play alongside one another to realize the benefits of peer relationships during play." RM