Feature Article - September 2004
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Go Play

Making playgrounds appealing, safe and challenging enough to keep kids interested

By Elisa Kronish

Including inclusion

Always on the minds of playground designers are ADA accessibility guidelines. While these guidelines have made a difference on many playgrounds, for some, they don't go far enough.

"The ADA standard says the kids need to be able to get to the equipment and touch it," says Noth of Boundless Playgrounds. "But it doesn't say they need to be able to interact with it."

While it doesn't argue against the ADA, Boundless Playgrounds encourages playground designers to go beyond the minimum requirements.

"If you build a ramp to nowhere, there's no point; if the kids can't engage in the play, then there's no point," Noth says. "If you end up sitting at the edge of a pile of wood chips, then it's not accessible." Playground planners need to think universally.

"Think of that child in a manually operated wheelchair who works so hard to get down the path and up the ramp and then there's nothing for them to do when they get there," she says. For example, a child in a wheelchair might not be able to go down a slide, but the next-best thing might be to provide a way for the child to get to the point where kids are climbing up to the slide.

"At least then they're in the middle of the fun," Noth says. "It's partly a dignity issue," she explains. "They can feel embarrassed if they're isolated away from the play."

Boundless Playgrounds, which has operated for six years and helped guide the design of nearly 70 playgrounds, looks to kids themselves to come up with ideas. From one young boy who uses a wheelchair, they learned even swings can be accessible. Matthew, now 13, imagined a type of swing that would allow him to swing with his friends. The idea was turned into reality by a manufacturer.

"He might not experience it the same way they do, but he can experience it with the other kids," Noth says. It works by allowing children in wheelchairs to ride up and get on in their wheelchair. "It's like a big boat that can be swayed by a group of kids including those in wheelchairs," Noth explains.

Spray features can be a perfect opportunity for inclusion if designed appropriately.

"If you put in the right surfacing, that's a great way for everyone to play together," Noth says. On the other hand, if the park has created a sunken area that can only be reached by jumping into it, then that restricts kids in wheelchairs from getting there.

"We saw a park where kids had to go through a moat of water to get to the sprinkler; the child pushing a manual wheelchair ends up getting his hands wet and slippery and struggles to get through the moat," Noth recalls. "A good-intentioned designer didn't think of such a situation."

Children with autism may not have the same physical challenges, but their needs also affect the design of a truly an all-inclusive playground.

"It can get very crowded and chaotic on a playground," Noth says. "Children with autism tend to shut down when they're over-stimulated. But if you just build a few quiet, cozy places where they can go and regroup, they can return to the play."

Visual impairments also can be easily accommodated with a few clever and minimal modifications.

"Put Braille labels on equipment to identify it," Noth suggests. Another simple design element: different surfacing textures so children with sight impairments can experience variations in their environment and changes in color so they can see the changes from platform to stairs or various levels.

When KaBOOM! was working on a community build with the Arizona State Schools for the Deaf and Blind, the pre-design meetings included physical therapists and occupational therapists. When the three design alternatives were completed, tactile maps were also created so all the children could understand the three options and vote. The final design included a sensory garden for different smells and touch sensations.

"It's all these details that make a big difference," Noth says. "Every kid deserves a chance to develop to their fullest."

While you might not see those nostalgic merry-go-rounds around anymore, playground design and equipment have made positive strides in safety, accessibility and creativity, encouraging kids to split their high-tech time with some tried-and-true outdoor play.