Where All Are Welcome
The Still-Growing World of Inclusive Play
Jill Moore is included now, every time she helps improve or build a playground.
She's welcome in the office and everywhere she goes to scout a site or display a piece of equipment.
An inclusion specialist with a leading playground equipment manufacturer, Moore is an example of the industry's latest attempt to show how important inclusive playspaces are. She was born with spina bifida into a world with no playgrounds she could use. The pain and exclusion she felt as a child has turned to satisfaction with the state of play today and with her role in ensuring that what she experienced as a child watching others play is felt by as few children as possible.
"I was a very competitive child, loved to play tag, had a wild imagination," said Moore. "Once we got to a playground, that's when it would feel like a job for anyone who had to hang out with me. Because I couldn't run across the grass, I couldn't play those games of tag, like everybody else. In a gym with my little wheelchair, I was fine, but on the playground I wasn't.
"I remember whoever got stuck playing with me that day, I was almost embarrassed because I knew they wanted to be doing something else, and I was really desperate for a friend. I remember being really embarrassed being the odd one out because people did try to include me, and when they did I knew they weren't going to have a good time either."
As the industry's approach evolved from providing accessibility according to the requirements of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) to providing true inclusion, and more and more advocate organizations raised awareness, Moore joined the fight to ensure every playground offered something for people of any ability and age and culture. The change was not as simple as the drive to provide what she only wished for as a child.
"I love my job so much, but the first two years I really didn't," Moore said. "I didn't understand it. I couldn't find my spot in this world because I was advocating for something I never experienced. Over time I was using more of the equipment, I was going to playgrounds, I was seeing how different it could be if we designed it a different way. I think I went through a grieving period in a way to recognize what I lost, to recognize what I never had, and why that mattered."
When remodeling or building for inclusion, Moore said organizations should look for manufacturers and other partners that employ people of different abilities who have experienced isolation from peers on the playground. "Who informs our choices should be the intended user group, not a bunch of scholars telling us what people want," she said. "I'm excited to see us pulling people in who have lived experience. The future (of the industry) is more disability."
The future also includes better service and equipment for people with sensory issues. The ADA covers people with orthopaedic challenges, yet according to 2018 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately one in 44 children in the U.S. is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Through intentional design—placement of equipment and features and facilities to enhance inclusion—as well as proper equipment and accessories, playspaces can provide the types of stimulation and breaks from stimulation needed.
Kent Callison is head of marketing for a playground equipment manufacturer and the father of a 20-year-old with special needs. He's been on both sides of wanting more inclusion, and for the past three years he's kept a laminated guide to his company's inclusive design essentials on his desk.
"It's the standard we work from," he said. "This is table stakes; this is where we start, and we'll work with you to make it fit your budget. Three years, and I look at it every day."
Nine of the 17 essentials satisfy a sensory need: music, communication, active versus passive play settings, ADA-compliant safety surfaces, motion/movement, cooperative play, half activity/balcony panel, shade, and cozy spot. Each one has specific pieces of equipment and accessories that will provide stimulation (or the lack of it). Callison said these features should not be separate from standard play equipment, but blended with it.
He said ramps need not be merely bridges to and from equipment, for instance. "Add interactive elements to ramps," said Callison. "They're not just an accessible pathway, they're part of the playspace. Things that move or light up, instruments. It's great for kids that are drawn to it, but it also attracts other kids. Anytime you can create social interactions between kids of different abilities, it's magic."
Examples of this understanding are popping up all over the country. Redwood City, Calif., and the Magical Bridge Foundation—a nonprofit advocate for inclusive play—combined to build a Magical Bridge Playground over the site of its former standard playground.
The space, opened in 2020, boasts an Innovation Zone, Music Zone, Spin Zone, Tot Zone, Kindness Corner, Slide Mound, and Swing and Sway Zone. There is also a picnic and group area and a playhouse and stage.
In its 2016 fundraising brochure for the Redwood City project, the foundation stated: "While 20 percent of the nation's individuals are living with a disability, only 10 percent of them use a mobility device. That means that the other 90 percent are living with autism, sensory challenges, cognitive and developmental issues, and complications that arise from aging. They play differently and, until now, the needs of this large subset of our community have not been considered."
Amy Evans is the parks director for the town of Summerville, S.C., which renovated an existing playspace to become more inclusive. She said the project began when users of an adjacent Miracle League field—specially designed baseball fields for people of all abilities to enjoy playing baseball—could not use the original playground, built in the 1950s.
"After the Miracle League's games, many of the kids could not use the playground due to various barriers," said Evans. "We felt it was important to remove these barriers. Being a beloved neighborhood park, one of the first things we did was engage the neighbors in the design process. We held multiple workshops at the site that were open to the public."
One of the foundational aspects of creating an inclusive playspace is community involvement, whether it's a member of the community that champions the project, or feedback at public meetings, or donations from businesses and residents.
Activist organizations like Magical Bridge and KABOOM help communities with this, as do manufacturers and their reps who have seen the inclusive light.
Tim McNamara is with a playground manufacturer's representative that has a community-first approach to inclusion. "Do not start the project with preconceived ideas of what the playground should be," he said. "The community that will be served by the playground must have a voice before actual playground design begins. The most successful projects all begin with community discussion and involvement."
McNamara said he learned that inclusion is not only about abilities but age as well when an older man approached him and explained he was planning a donation to a park department in his and his wife's name.
The man said he wanted the money spent on a playground that everyone could enjoy. He specifically wanted to learn more about "rope play," so McNamara took him to a playground that had a rope structure and they climbed it together.
"And he said, 'I get it now,'" McNamara said. "Then he rode a zipline twice, both times laughing while he glided along and then said, 'I always wanted to do that!' The man was 96 years old."
Callison and Moore and KABOOM Senior Strategist Jennifer DeMelo agree that more education is crucial to continuing the inclusive design momentum.
"I'm still finding that people are using the term 'handicapped,' which is not accurate anymore," DeMelo said. "There's a more progressive understanding, and there's others that are a little far back. They think there's an incredibly high cost associated with building these types of playspaces, they have to be fully ramped, and that's certainly not the case anymore.
"I think it's an educational thing. It's people not clearly understanding and turning away because of the cost associated with a universally accessible playground. They don't understand there can be intentional modifications to the environment that could enhance inclusive play such as designing for the population that you're serving."
DeMelo said an inclusive playspace uses intentional design by having something for everyone arranged with their needs in mind. There's importance in having a range of risk-taking because there are different types of abilities and caretakers interested in different types of risk.
"Some want more delicate behaviors that might be a little more on the creative side and others want climbing high, spinning quickly, swinging fast, and so it's important to arrange the items so you have areas of high active play and then a little bit more of a quiet space as well," she said.
DeMelo said the inclusiveness involves the entire environment surrounding the play space. The trees, the bushes and the seating also impact a holistic look at the play value associated with the playground.
Callison said plants and trees and bushes surrounding the playspace can keep kids from leaving the area; he saw it firsthand with his daughter, who would be more likely to stray from a playspace without natural borders.
"It really is about being intentional with how you're designing the space for the population you serve, and it's about creating a sense of belonging in the space regardless of your abilities," DeMelo said.
Certain large pieces of equipment are specialized, like accessible swings for mobility devices. Others, like rope structures, benefit people of all abilities. Sarah Shepherd is with a company that manufactures rope structures and said their unique design is naturally inclusive and beneficial. Most basically, they are accessible by nature as they are inherently designed for entrance and exit at ground level.
"However, it goes much further to provide a truly inclusive experience versus just accessibility for users," she said. "Rope playgrounds provide the type of play experience that will engage users with other types of sensory and cognitive disorders. As an example, the simple act of navigating through a 3-D spatial net will encourage development in a child experiencing cognitive delays. The constant movement of the ropes, versus the traditional decking system, allows children with mobility disorders or postural disorders to develop their endurance, core strength and balance."
Shepherd said rope allows a different level of interaction; for instance, it provides a significant motor challenge. Children with ADD or ADHD benefit from the need to concentrate on their movements while burning off energy by using their whole body, she said.
"The transparency of rope allows children with hearing impairments to move across the levels while maintaining eye contact with other children or caretakers outside the equipment," Shepherd said. "A 3-D spatial climber has no prescribed entrance or exit which means children must make their own path. This aids in decision-making and problem-solving skills."
Also, rope playgrounds offer experiences that directly impact children with cognitive or sensory disorders, said Shepherd. These children do not necessarily need accessible routes, ramps or transfer stations, but rather require a different variety of experiences.
Finally, rope playgrounds provide a truly multigenerational experience, she said. "It is not uncommon to see a wide mix of children and adults on a rope play structure, as it offers such wide variety of difficulty levels and a thrilling adventure not found in traditional spaces," said Shepherd.
In the spirit of true inclusion, a playspace needs to satisfy people of all communicative abilities as well, Callison said. His company partners with BoardMaker to help everyone tell caretakers and peers what they want and mean while in the play area. BoardMaker displays the Tobii Dynavox Picture Communication Symbols language known to special education students and teachers worldwide for 30 years. Users simply point to the symbols to relay instructional and directional messages.
"Today folks are really going granular and talk to us about sensory processing disorder or nonverbal learning disabilities," Callison said. "Because of feedback from customers, we've been addressing the needs of the millions of people in this country who have a nonverbal learning disability and making sure there is informative pictorial signage on the playground.
"When parents of kids with these issues see these signs, they immediately feel they belong."
Belonging is often overshadowed by the focus on accessibility and use—who can use the equipment and accessories, said Moore. But belonging is a feel, a sense, and it comes from an entire space's design.
Moore said she still runs into situations that let her know her work is needed, that there's still progress to be made. A recent trip to a playspace with inclusive features bunched to one side refueled her. "Immediately I felt like, 'Aw not again,'" she said. "I genuinely felt like I didn't belong. It took me back to the old feeling of 'I shouldn't be doing this,' and so I've learned the value of what we do, the value of designed space, of making sure nobody feels that way."
Moore added, "A big trend I'm seeing is people being intentional. It's no longer throwing a ramp on there, a steering wheel on a post and calling it a day, but creating a really meaningful space. Communities are starting to pay attention to who's coming to play, and that informs their choices. If we know we have a really high population of kids with autism, we focus more on more sensory choices, more climbing, more respite spaces.
"My favorite people to work with are the people who are excited to do it right, and they don't need to know anything coming in. How do we design for different diagnoses? How do they play? How do we get the community behind us? We can do a lot of legwork to get everybody on board and on the same page."
The desire for an inclusive space and the innovation provided by manufacturers and advocates in equipment and design is more than revenue generation and profit-making. The goals are making people feel included and providing experiences that enhance their lives. Moore said a swing that people in mobility devices can use is great, but what if they could use it without the help of a caretaker or peer?
"We worked on creating a swing where you could face someone else, that I could roll in on my wheelchair and be on it with other kids," said Moore. "Handlebars that help me make this thing go, so I wouldn't be at the mercy of someone else, that it can be incorporated into a playground so disability isn't portrayed as some weird circus sideshow. That's intentional design, and it's very genuine to the experience of disability.
"We're not saying you're at the mercy of someone else when you go play, we're fostering independent living, creativity and problem-solving and risk. There's a lot of autonomy our designs afford, and autonomy makes the biggest difference." RM