Play Along

Inclusive Playgrounds Help Us All Play Together


Here's something we can likely all agree on: Kids need to play. Beyond having fun and getting exercise, play provides so many more building blocks in a child's development. "Play is essential for all kids; it contributes to cognitive, physical, social and emotional well-being of children and youth," shared Jennifer DeMelo, director of special projects at KABOOM!, a nonprofit working to provide play space equity by working with communities to build play spaces that are often designed by the kids themselves.

And since play is such a critical part of a child's development, it's even more important to have play spaces that all kids can access, including those with physical and cognitive disabilities, autism, sensory challenges, visual and auditory impairments and the medically fragile. According to the Magical Bridge Foundation, this includes one in four of us. Unfortunately, this population has often been excluded from traditional playgrounds, but in recent years there have been greater efforts by grassroots groups, communities, municipal leaders, nonprofits and playground designers to address these inequities and make play spaces more universal for all.

ADA requirements for new as well as existing playgrounds vary based on who owns the playground. And state, city and county ordinances must also be considered. And while many advocates and designers feel that minimum requirements simply don't go far enough, there seems to be momentum in the right direction when it comes to going beyond minimum standards to make spaces truly universal.

"The conversation around inclusive play is growing," said Jill Moore, an inclusive play specialist with a Minnesota-based manufacturer of commercial playground equipment. "It's no longer a trend, but a movement. Communities want to ensure they're inviting everyone, and it starts by creating environments that say yes to kids and yes to inclusion. It's at the forefront of everyone's minds; they're asking the questions on how they can design a playground and make it inclusive to all."


Moore's company offers a guide with tips for planning, designing and building inclusive playgrounds, and in it they stress the importance of universal design, described as "a process that enables and empowers a diverse population by improving human performance, health and wellness, and social participation." It is pointed out that applying universal design does not mean that all the fun and risk of a park or playground is eliminated, but it helps create a place where everyone can play, learn and grow together. Inclusive playgrounds also allow adults of varying abilities and ages to actively engage with children in their care, therefore fostering a multigenerational gathering space.

"Universal design is not about fixing a space for one specific disability demographic, it's about creating a space that everyone can use," said Moore. "Incorporating that into the planning stage helps set the tone for the entire project from the playground and splash pad to the bathrooms, pathways and site amenities. This allows as many people as possible to have a meaningful experience in the space."

Since playgrounds do offer opportunities for kids to develop physical, cognitive, sensory and social skills, it's good to include a balance of all these experiences when designing with inclusivity in mind. By using a wide range of materials and textures, and natural elements such as sand, water and plants, you can help create an environment that is sensory-rich. Most kids are captivated by visually stimulating surfaces and moving objects, therefore interactive play panels are popular. Simple things like color can generate strong responses for some kids, and for children with low vision, it's helpful to include elements that offer strong visual contrast, especially to highlight sudden elevation changes. Music panels and instruments spark creativity and curiosity, and various bells, chimes, metallophones, xylophones, drums and other percussion instruments are showing up in more play spaces.


Social play—even if just observing—is important, and it's good to provide a variety of gathering spots. But it's equally important to provide cozy, quiet spaces for those needing a break. Cognitive play can happen in groups or individually, and games, tracing panels, mazes, etc., can enhance problem-solving skills and provide educational opportunities. Kids of all abilities benefit from physical activities that require balance and coordination, and improve muscle strength and endurance, motor planning and cardiovascular exercise. Amenities that feature sliding, spinning and swinging can sharpen senses and offer vestibular and proprioception experiences. And while you want to include overhead events at different heights, and features like balance beams and stepping forms, it's also important to include ground-level activities for kids to explore play experiences at their own pace and comfort level.

Moore explained how their team worked to innovate and create a barrier-breaking swing, and described how it delivers an accessible, no-transfer swing option to all wheelchair users that can be on the playground alongside everyone else, "allowing us to swing with our friends and help not only propel, but actually control our own motion. This innovation truly gives individuals of all abilities a chance to participate, imagine and finally enjoy one of the best parts of the playground, and get swinging however we move."

Moore, who is a full-time wheelchair user herself, also explained that it's difficult to create thrill and climbing challenges in a comfortable way for children with disabilities. But she said they've started to use a belted material in an innovative way on some of their play equipment, which "allows those kids who are transferring out of their mobility devices—which we want to encourage and make rewarding—to traverse, build their motor-planning skills and get to the highest point of the structure to engage in play."

She also pointed out that while woodchips are considered ADA-compliant, many people with mobility devices can't easily navigate through a space using loose-fill surfaces. "Even if I'm not climbing the tallest climber, I want to get there and see my friends do it. We feel turf and rubberized surfacing are much more comfortable and make for more inclusive spaces."


Headquartered in California, The Magical Bridge Foundation is a nonprofit organization that advocates for, designs and builds playgrounds and parks for children and adults of all ages, abilities and sizes. After being frustrated by the lack of inclusivity at playgrounds in her area, Founder Olenka Villarreal was determined to create an outdoor space that both her disabled and non-disabled daughters would love. It took Villarreal and her team of volunteers several years of researching and raising funds, but in 2015 the flagship Magical Bridge Playground opened in Palo Alto, Calif., and it now draws 25,000 visitors a month.

The playground features a treehouse and bridge, slide mound and custom two-story playhouse that are all fully accessible. Accessible equipment includes disc and bucket swings, spinning features, wide slides, a sway boat and a merry-go-round flush with the ground. There's tactile slides and surfaces, retreat spaces, a 24-string laser harp and other auditory features, seamless paths and turf, play zone descriptions featuring braille, original interactive artwork and plenty of shade. They've also added the Dignity Landing, an innovation at the bottom of a slide enabling users to scoot over with dignity while their wheelchair is brought down. And because predictability matters for many who play there, the playground is divided into zones. There's the Swinging Zone, Sliding & Climbing Zone, Music Zone, Spinning Zone, Kindness Corner, and the Playhouse and Play Stage.

According to Jill Asher, executive director at the Magical Bridge Foundation, another Magical Bridge playground has now opened, with one more slated to open this summer and another early next year. Additionally, construction begins on two more next year. The foundation also looks to advise other interested communities nationwide. "We receive inquiries everyday about design and consulting projects," said Asher. "With that said, our team is very small—five full-time employees—and can only take on a few projects at a time." Some of these projects involve new spaces, and some want to make their current playgrounds more universal. "Most want to reimagine their existing spaces because there is already infrastructure there: parking, restrooms etc."


Another initiative launched by the Magical Bridge Foundation with the goal of improving and diversifying open spaces is PlayParks, created for areas two acres and upward. Asher said they've worked with three cities in California to apply for funds to redesign their entire parks—in lower socioeconomic communities—and make them truly inclusive. "Our hope is to transform these spaces and make them a safe, welcoming community hub for everyone."

"After community engagement meetings with input from hundreds of people in each community," Asher continued, "we have reimagined their parks to include soccer fields, dog parks, picnic and BBQ areas, multi-use sports fields, community gardens, walking and rolling paths, native trees for shade and so much more. And of course, an all-inclusive playground."

Indeed, when discussing efforts to make parks and playgrounds truly inclusive, we must also look at communities that are underserved—places where kids don't have access to safe play spaces in their neighborhood. In 1995, two young children in Washington, D.C., died tragically when they became trapped in an abandoned car with faulty locks on a hot day. They played in the car because their neighborhood had no playground, and the nearest rec center was too far. Darell Hammond heard this story and was so moved that he assembled volunteers and built a playground in the neighborhood in four days out of lumber, tires and other odds and ends. The kids loved it. The next year, he officially founded KABOOM!

To date, KABOOM! has built or improved over 17,000 play spaces, engaging more than 1.5 million community members and serving over 11 million kids. "Kids deserve the right to access places where they can thrive and just be kids, especially in the current state and situation that we're living in. Having an outlet and safe space to socialize and expend energy and have a release is critically important to those living in extremely toxic environments," said DeMelo.

She explained that while they offer several different types of programs, their flagship program pairs funding partners with communities that are interested in providing new playgrounds for their neighborhoods. "We engage them in a planning process that ultimately ends with a build event where the play space is built with a number of volunteers on site in just one day. That's our standard Build it with KABOOM! model."


Another priority of KABOOM! is creating spaces for teens. "Teens have been often overlooked, and they're such a huge part of our community that need their own specific spaces," said DeMelo. She explained that while they utilize certain offerings like multi-sport courts and adventure courses, they also work with teens and community members to design their own space, which might manifest itself as a hangout spot that includes seating and shade and perhaps some messaging boards. The creation of artwork and murals might be another undertaking. "We always have additional room to create additional amenities onsite, and we think that co-creation and design is instrumental in defining success to their spaces." She added that they've seen teens taking the lead as mentors as well, designing and creating spaces for other kids. "We've seen some really cool, innovative new play infrastructure items come out of this."


Another KABOOM! initiative is Play Everywhere. DeMelo pointed out that while they can build one play space at a time, oftentimes there are still barriers keeping kids from accessing them. This could include physical barriers like a highway, or maybe guardians are working multiple jobs and can't get kids to the space. "So we enacted this notion that we put play in unexpected, everyday places. When we start to think about where kids and communities are congregating, we're able to infuse that space with play infrastructure, and now we're creating kid-friendly spaces outside of just the playground." Some examples are bus stops, laundromats, empty lots, sidewalks and grocery stores.

"We're working all across the board with city leaders and grassroots community leaders to think about how we can work together to close play space inequities," said DeMelo. Collaborations have taken place in Chicago, San Francisco, Detroit, Baltimore, Boston and Los Angeles, to name a few. But the organization also points out that rural areas often suffer play space inequities as well, and DeMelo points to several playgrounds recently built in rural Colorado in partnership with the Colorado Health Foundation. "Oftentimes people think that playgrounds that honor inclusive principals have to be large destination playgrounds, and I think from our angle, inclusion is providing spaces for all kids. The other really important part of our work is that our focus on play space equity is directly tied to the racial disparities and racial inequities that exist, and unfortunately there's a clear parallel between the two."


When planning truly universal spaces, Moore stressed that it's important to engage all populations. "It's really important that we as designers don't assume to know what's going to be best, but work with persons with disabilities and not for them; they know best what they need to make a space functional and thriving. (We'll) help clients on where to look, for example occupational therapists, local school systems or community groups. By talking with them, you'll learn what's needed to make a space impactful."

Pottawatomie Park in St. Charles, Ill., features many amenities: event pavilions, a softball field, a miniature golf course, a concession stand, paved paths, outdoor fitness equipment, ample open space, tennis courts and a playground. But they've recently started constructing a second playground—one that's more accessible and inclusive for everyone. Laura Rudow is superintendent of parks and planning in St. Charles, and she said the idea came up during the community input phase of their Comprehensive Master Plan and the park board agreed to make it a priority. "We then applied for an Open Space Lands Acquisition and Development grant through the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and received $248,000. Part of the grant application was to hold community meetings and solicit input on the details of the project, such as playground components to be included." She added that the playground was a planned capital expense, and that the local Kiwanis club donated $15,000 for the purchase and installation of the wheelchair swing.

According to Rudow, a Fond-du-Lac, Wis.-based playground equipment manufacturer provided play features. "Near the actual ramp-accessed play structure, there's a playhouse and a log with holes cut out to be close, but perhaps not fully engaged for a child who wants to be included but not part of all the activity. There are places for passive, make-believe play in addition to the large structure. Sensory stimulation can be achieved on various swings, rockers and spinners as well. There is also a vine tunnel that will be grown in to provide tactile stimulation if touched."


Rudow said that a large pavilion was constructed to not only provide shade, but also as a rentable option for those wanting to host gatherings within the playground. "There are permanent, rounded benches that complement the landscape design throughout the area, especially in the sensory garden. The raised, concrete planter beds will also create seating. We put poured-in-place (surfacing) all through the playground equipment and a combination of concrete and paver bricks in the garden area." Rudow added that they visited other inclusive playgrounds in the area during the design phase, and they're hoping for a soft opening by summer 2021.

For those looking to make a new or existing space more inclusive, Moore suggests educating your community as best you can about the need for inclusive play. "If people aren't immersed in it all the time, they probably aren't thinking about it as much. But if we get in front of them with education and the 'why,' that's what attracts the passion to make these projects happen. You may attract more individuals to get involved and help with funding, outreach efforts or other project needs."

Back at Magical Bridge, Asher had similar advice. "Get buy-in from your city council, mayor or city manager. You need to have their support to move any project forward. Try and align with a nonprofit or philanthropist who can help with financial support. Continue to advocate to your city leadership that this is important!" RM