Guest Column - July/August 2002
Find a printable version here

All Inclusive

Taking accessibility one step further

By Ron Derk, Playworld Systems, Inc.

The Mar Sin Barreras (Sea Without Barriers) playground in Puerto Rico

Think back to when you were a kid playing at the local playground. Chances are you weren't there by yourself, but rather with friends from the neighborhood and kids you just met. You invented games to play or maybe challenged each other to see who could swing the highest or jump the farthest. And in the process of playing with others, you also learned about yourself.

It's impossible to overestimate the importance of creative play to child development. Play teaches children to use their imaginations and become confident in who they are. Children also begin to form play groups at a very young age. Participation in these play groups help shape the people we will become. We learn skills like communication, problem-solving and relationship building. And what better place to form these play groups and develop these important life skills than at a playground? However, if a playground is merely accessible but not inclusive, children with disabilities are often excluded from this vital developmental step.

Studies show that at least one in seven people personally knows a child who lives with a disability; roughly one in five children live with some sort of chronic or disabling condition, ranging from asthma to disabilities that are wheelchair confining.

Accessibility is definitely not a new topic when it comes to playgrounds. As professionals in the industry, we work hard to make sure that each playground we install is ADA compliant, and as recreation directors and teachers, we want each playground we design and purchase to be accessible to every kid—regardless of ability level. But when we make a playground accessible, are we also consciously making certain that it's inclusive?

Inclusiveness promotes social interaction, and even though each child may not be able to climb on the same steps or slide on the same slides, as long as there is comparable play equipment next to each other, there is the ability to learn from each other. When play becomes both inaccessible and noninclusive, misconceptions begin to form, and we begin to see others for their limitations and not for their abilities.

As professionals in the industry, it's easy for us to think of accessibility in terms of wheelchairs. Are there enough transfer stations for someone in a wheelchair to access the equipment? Are the catwalks wide enough for a wheelchair to fit? We look through our catalogs and recommend equipment we think best suit our clients' needs. But it's not always that simple. We also have to be creative when designing play areas for all children to get to and actually use.

Other examples of playgrounds offering activities that are both accessible and inclusive

A good example of all this is an innovative project in Puerto Rico—Mar Sin Barreras (Sea Without Barriers). Like many youngsters in Puerto Rico, Rosimar Hernŕndez loved the beach. But as she got older, she found it difficult to spend time at her favorite place—because she was in a wheelchair. It was hard for her parents to carry her to the water. Taking matters into her own hands, Rosimar began writing letters to her mayor and then to the governor explaining her situation and outlining an idea. The result: an accessible beach. A fully accessible beach playground was constructed so that all kids could play together. There is also a ramp, which leads directly from the parking lot into the ocean, special bath areas, picnic shelters, basketball courts and other recreational activities—all accessible to everyone.

As we continue working toward making our playgrounds both accessible and inclusive for all kids, let's remember Rosimar and the many other children like her. Let's make sure that we design playgrounds that are not only accessible to wheelchairs but also inclusive for kids of varying abilities. Let's remember to include equipment that is sensory rich so children with developmental and sensory disabilities (such as sight and hearing impairment) can play and interact with their peers.

For example, a sand table can provide hours of play for kids of all ability levels. A sight-impaired child can use his/her sense of touch to express creativity in the grains of sand, and an elevated table accommodates both wheelchairs and standing children side-by-side.

Activities that are found close to the ground also encourage play and interaction among all children. Activity panels—like driver panels and ball mazes—provide a meeting area for kids, regardless of ability.

For a playground to be considered accessible doesn't mean that each and every piece of equipment has to be able to be used by every child. It means like experiences must be provided. Make sure every child has the opportunity to swing, slide or climb—if that's what is offered. It's also important to remember that playgrounds also should be accessible for adults with disabilities as well. There may be parents, teaches and grandparents supervising children on the equipment who have disabilities of their own.

As an adult I am often reminded of those afternoons spent on the playground. They are memories that still bring a smile to my face, as I'm sure that you have a few of your own. So let's continue working together to ensure that all children have the opportunity to make their own playground memories.

Ron Derk is director of sales and marketing for Playworld Systems, Inc.
He can be reached at