Something for Everyone

Inclusive, Multigenerational Playgrounds Have Broad Reach


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.

Some of the features include poured-in-place rubberized surfacing, and a double zipline featuring a traditional disc seat and a bucket seat with a shoulder harness. "This is our most popular piece of equipment, which gives kids of all abilities the opportunity to ride and race each other side by side," Millington said.

In addition, the playground features a swing that accommodates one to six children and has become a favorite feature for children with autism due to its swaying/swinging motion. A custom sensory tunnel is another favorite component. "This custom piece is a tunnel with star cut-outs of different colors. When the sun shines through the stars, they light up in their color throughout the tunnel and move around as the sun moves directions," she said. "This is a great piece to take a break from the action in a [quieter] spot."

The rehab team at the University of Minnesota Children's Hospital helped pick out equipment that could be used as therapy during play.

"It has quickly become a favorite play space," Millington said, "and we have also accomplished our mission to have a space where kids with and without disabilities are playing together, creating new friendships, as well as parents with physical disabilities having the opportunity to play with their young kids."

Even more importantly, "The response from the community has been amazing," she added. "Families are coming from hours away to utilize Madison's Place not only for play, but also to work on their physical and occupational therapies in between doctor visits."


More awareness of the benefits of healthy choices in early life, not only related to diet and early education, but also for exercise and social participation, marks another trend in inclusive playgrounds today.

"This trend facilitates support for active outdoor spaces. As mentioned, the increase in autism and the advocacy around this condition has increased awareness of the need for and benefits of sensory-based outdoor play," said Mallioux, who has helped a Monett, Mo.-based playground equipment manufacturer design inclusive playgrounds.

"One thing that would lead to even better outcomes would be the involvement of people knowledgeable in child development in the planning and purchasing of city and school playgrounds," she said.

Those decisions currently are made mostly by business-minded administrators who prioritize cost, durability and safety. "More experts in the benefits of active play with novel motor challenges and sensory-rich experiences," Mallioux added, "will save money in the long run and make communities more satisfying, engaging and meaningful for all."

When creating play spaces, Callison's company considers the environment first, and how to make it usable and beneficial to all people. "We use the guidelines found in Me2: The 7 Principles of Inclusive Playground Design, created in partnership with Utah State University Center for Person with Disabilities and our parent company, PlayCore. Me2 is the only evidence-based design philosophy in the industry," he said, adding that it also is a guidebook of best practices and considerations for upgrading existing or designing new outdoor inclusive play environments.

"Within the play environment, and within the design guidelines to make that environment inclusive, we've introduced new play products that are innovative, fun and aligned with research-based best practices," he said.

Examples include a climber that features sensors that provide auditory, tactical and visual feedback as children explore, as well as precision-tuned musical instruments designed in compliance with AS™ standards for playground areas.

"By thoughtfully designing a play space to align with best practices, and selecting playground equipment that addresses the needs, and provides developmental benefits for children of all abilities," Callison added, "you create a play environment that is truly inclusive."

Best Practices in Inclusive Play

Best practices for developing inclusive playgrounds include a number of factors, such as going beyond accessibility.

"Make sure the playground meets the DOJ Guidelines for accessibility, includes ramped access, creates accessible routes of travel to and throughout the play area … but don't stop there. Design a play space that addresses the needs of the whole child and of every child," Callison explained.


  • Select play equipment that addresses all five developmental domains: physical, social-emotional, sensory, cognitive, and communication. These five developmental domains are interrelated and interdependent, and an inclusive playground that addresses all of them can enhance the social relationships, physical and mental health, and brain function of children of all abilities.
  • Create cozy spaces on the playground for children to seek sensory relief. Some children crave sensory input, while others do not. For those who need relief from the noise of a playground, it's important to provide quiet or semi-enclosed places under decks or crawl tubes for children to until they are ready to re-engage.
  • Consider the location of the playground. No matter how accessible and inclusive it is, it doesn't serve its purpose if no one can get to it. Think about the proximity of the playground to nearby families, whether it is served by public transit and how far it is located from the nearest accessible parking spaces.

"This is a best practice that is often overlooked or not considered, but I offer it from my own personal experience. I have a daughter with special needs," Callison said. "When she was very young, she would run away from us at every opportunity. If you turned your head for a second, she would bolt like a scared horse. The clinical term for this is 'elopement,' and it is a condition that affects many children, and their parents.

"We encourage the use of natural barriers like plants, shrubs and other landforms to create a natural barrier outside the play environment. Even manufactured fencing will work. You don't have to create a full barrier or make children feel as if they are 'caged in.' The idea is to create a visual perimeter that discourages elopement and encourages children to stay inside the designated play area."


McConkey said he would group inclusive and multigenerational best practices together, and said,"Regarding the overall environment, that would include characteristics such as universal design features, wide access routes and ramps, unitary surfacing, more than enough shade and comfortable seating and site amenities, concrete pads next to benches allow for a person in a wheelchair to sit alongside their friends and family."

Depending on the overall site, he said a good idea would be to add fencing or landscape features (plantings), too, to prevent a child from running away if they become over stimulated.

"Parents need to feel safe in the space by allowing their children to roam without having to hover over them," he said.

He also said to focus on access (universal design); safety (good sight lines, shade, fencing or containment features, transition areas from the parking area); and comfort (shade, seating with backs and arm rests, water, adequate rest room facilities—with adult changing tables).

For play experiences, McConkey's company focuses on: activities (cognitive, physical, social, sensory, group and solitary); achievement (age and developmentally appropriate, graduated levels of challenge allowing all children to experience success); and choice (variety, options and range of activities; these become empowering so children can make their own choice of what to do.)

Overall community engagement and outreach best practices include activation—promoting, programming and engagement, McConkey noted.

Charles Jackson, a brand manager and certified playground safety inspector who works for a Carrollton, Ga.-based commercial playground equipment manufacturer, noted parallel paths, "ways to transfer sliding events on structures," and "ground-level interactive play and cooperative play," as being some best practices.

Natalie Mackay, executive director of Unlimited Play, a St. Louis, Mo.-based nonprofit organization that helps to plan, design and build fully accessible playgrounds that allow all children, regardless of their abilities, to play together, said inclusive playgrounds feel like the "place where kids can be kids."


"On the playground, it creates this natural environment where kids can learn from each other," said Mackay, whose son, Zachary, has a rare genetic central nervous system disease. "They learn that my son is just like they are, but he uses a wheelchair. For me, it was more than just playing, but education that truly brings the community together," she said, adding that inclusive playgrounds also help parents with disabilities have the opportunity to play with their children.

Mackay, whose organization now partners with a Monett, Mo.-based manufacturer of commercial-grade playground equipment, advised that when creating inclusive playgrounds, everything should be accessible. "Make sure there are accessible pathways," she said.

Another best practice is parallel play. "Make sure you create things for all kids to play [with] together and break down the barriers at the same time," she said, adding that it's also important to include fencing around the playground.

Even more importantly, for playgrounds—particularly those installed in a public space—it's necessary to provide equipment that aligns with AS™ standards for playground equipment.

"All public playgrounds should comply with AS™ standards regarding playground equipment and with the DOJ guidelines regarding accessibility, including routes of access to and throughout the play area, number of elevated and ground-level play activities, accessible safety surfacing, etc.," Callison explained.

McConkey added that all playground designers should follow ADA standards for accessible design as well.

"However," he added, "there are no standards to dictate inclusive design. Inclusive design is based on the intersection of community awareness and understanding of their unique needs and a good designer who can employ evidence-based best practice recommendations to create a play environment that is fun, functional and engaging for all."

Multigenerational Trends

Many of Callison's customers are committed to creating multigenerational recreation areas, which is an area of focus that's been driving his company's design process recently. For instance, a swing that his company makes enables parents and children to play face-to-face and eye-to-eye, and experience the scientific principle of attunement during play. "They promote adult play. They encourage parent-child bonding. And they reinforce playful behaviors throughout our life cycle," he said.

In addition, an outdoor fitness product Callison's company manufactures is a multigenerational product that addresses the popularity of challenge and obstacle courses, and encourages people of all ages to be more playful together. "It appeals to a wide range of users, from all walks of life, play styles and socioeconomic backgrounds. It's a cross between a ninja obstacle course and a pro sports combine," he said. "With the addition of the mobile phone app and the professional timing systems, it's a social and competitive experience for the entire community."


His company also has worked with communities to add outdoor fitness products adjacent to playgrounds, giving parents and adult caregivers a chance to exercise while children are playing. "This helps adults stay more active, and it sets a great example for children to continue exercising when they grow older," he said. "Inclusive and multigenerational play—products and recreation areas that encourage people of all ages, backgrounds and abilities to play together—that's the future of play."

Multigenerational playgrounds should consider the needs of everyone in a community. "For example, add shade structures and seating areas to a playground to create comfortable areas for parents and grandparents to rest while observing children at play," Callison suggested. "Consider adding walking paths, jogging trails or outdoor fitness equipment near the playground to attract older teens and adults to the recreation area so that families can participate in outdoor recreation together."

The playground itself should be designed to encourage adults to engage in playful behavior with children. One way to accomplish that is by adding custom graphics to poured rubber surfacing for games such as hopscotch or foursquare. In addition, consider adding game tables, basketball goals, picnic areas and other amenities to the surrounding area.

"The idea is to find ways to get everyone involved in play," Callison said. "Studies have shown that when parents and children interact with one another in play, there are mutual physical, social and emotional benefits that are potentiated by the shared experience, more so than when parents or children play alone."

While components of multigenerational playgrounds might include fitness stations and other types of games, it still "… comes back to good design to include age and developmentally appropriate play for people of all ages," McConkey said.

"Often we will see individual play zones or play nodes separated by natural features such as low mounds, swales or plantings," he said. "Play nodes may be dedicated to a particular activity such as sand/water play, music play, big muscle play (climbing/sliding) or swinging/spinning. And, they may be scaled to be smaller and more intimate for those [in] quiet, small group play for just a few, or larger in scale to accommodate more people."

Activities that accommodate older adult caregivers include exercise equipment and mobility/rehab types of activities, as well as the hidden discovery and scavenger hunt games. "These invite both the adult and child to play together," he said.

Jackson noted that multigenerational playgrounds have events that adults used to play with when they were a child. "Items include monkey bars (overhead challenges), tire swings, swings, merry go rounds, etc.," he said.

Still other features of a multigenerational playground include fitness stations, which Perreault said seem "to be the most common way to make a playground multigenerational."

"Recently, I've seen ping pong tables, a putting green, bocce ball, foosball, dog parks and a bean bag toss, too," he added.

Best Practices in Multigenerational Play

Multigenerational best practices go along with designing a play area that is inclusive and accessible.

"The best practice would be to create an area for children ages 6 to 23 months, an area for children ages 2 to 5, and an area for children ages 5 to 12," Callison said.

However, creating an inclusive playground also means making sure it is accessible for adults who use a mobility device so they can engage in play with their children.


"Consider adding play activities to walking paths and greenways," said Callison, whose company offers a product that positions pockets of play along a trail. "Each play pocket has play activities that are nature-themed such as butterflies, ants or trees, along with educational signage that describes the animals, their habitat and fun activities. As families walk along the trail or greenway, they discover these play pockets and engage in fun, active play together," he explained.

Design areas and include activities that appeal to a wide range of play styles, ages and abilities, and that encourage people of all ages to play together. One example is outdoor musical instruments. Music is inherently inclusive and appeals to people of all ages. "If you combine multiple instruments you can encourage parents and grandparents to play along with children," Callison said.

For older children (13 to 18), Callison's company encourages customers to consider products that engage older children and teenagers in a fun, active and competitive way. For adults, adding outdoor fitness equipment and other site amenities is very important, too.

"You want to make sure adults have something to do at the park that helps them stay active, and you want to [motivate] adults to go to the park with their children. After all, in most cases, the only way a child has access to a playground is if an adult takes them there," he said.

"The perfect scenario is a space that provides fun opportunities for people of all ages and abilities to play and recreate, and to play together," he added. "Planning a space around the needs of every age group, and considering how people of different ages will interact with one another is the key to creating a great multigenerational space."