Feature Article - September 2003
Find a printable version here

Kids Just Wanna Have Fun

Playground design trends mix excitement with accessibility and safety

By Kelli Anderson

Playing it smart

"There is a wide enough range of current products that children of all abilities can be supported," Schappet says. "It's a matter of how to configure the components to maximize play. The play environment isn't important in essence—it's fun things to do and be, and being in the middle of play, child-focused. We need to be focused on what they do when playing and provide accommodations for all children to have the opportunity to play."

In practical terms, that means providing something for everyone, everywhere. If you have swings, provide the surfacing necessary to access the swings and have at least one or more with molded high backs to support a child with a range of disabilities. In the sand area, provide a raised play sand table or remove seats from stationary sand shovels positioned near the edge of the walkway for children with wheelchairs.

In high areas like climbing walls that can't always be modified to meet special needs, provide a parallel activity next to it where children can interact even if not on the same component. Environments can be designed so children with mobility impairments will still be in the same area as rigorous upper-body events.


Equipment is just half the equation, however.

"The other half is imaginative design involving communities, family, landscape architects and contractors," says Catherine Curry-Williams, founder and consultant with Shane's Inspiration in Los Angeles. "We're working at creating more sensory elements like water walls with sound and touch elements that children can feel and hear. We're working with the Foundation of the Junior Blind because there are no opportunities for these types of children."

Although only operating as a design and consulting business for a few short years, Shane's Inspiration is already international in scope and has been instrumental in convincing the city of Los Angeles to create at least one universally accessible playground in each of its 15 districts.


Shane's Inspiration, named for its founder's infant child who died of complications associated with Spinal Muscular Atrophy, hopes all playgrounds will one day reflect its visionary design philosophy. Likewise, Hadley's Park Inc. began when its founder, Shelley Kramm, discovered that there were no parks in her hometown where both her daughters—one with a disability—could play together. She set out to change her neighborhood for the better and helped establish the first fully accessible playground in Maryland and is now helping others change their communities too.

Water walls, sand tables, swings for all users, story nooks, structures with sound and touch elements, half-panels with games and puzzles, and spinning and rocking play events are all elements of a playground that would excite any child but also allow the interests of children with special needs to be addressed so they, too, can play, have fun and interact with the world around them.

Playing it Safe

Most accidents on playgrounds are caused by poor maintenance. Communities often wait until there is an unfortunate accident—something jarring followed by the much-feared lawsuit—before they realize the error of their ways.

Surfacing maintenance is the worst culprit where regularly scheduled raking, cleaning and refilling of wood products is a must to keep the fall-height areas around swings, slides and climbing apparatus at their best.

Inspections of anything that moves (especially swings) are another maintenance must.

"Parks crew and support should inspect parks on a monthly basis," says Bob Holling, director of park and recreation and forestry for the city of Sun Prairie, Wis., who oversees 32 park areas in a growing community of 22,000. "Even those who mow the grass weekly can check for broken things. We even have signs in all our parks with phone numbers where people can call us about safety when something isn't right."

When complaints are made or graffiti noticed, being quick to respond is key.

"Appearance is very important," Holling says. "If it's running down, you've got to do something to it—whether you get complaints or compliments, you can't blow it off. We try to be as responsive as we can."

Manufacturers also try to make maintenance easier by often supplying instructional videos and information. Accidents as a percentage are on the decline. Better maintenance is one way to keep it that way.