Feature Article - January 2013
Find a printable version here

Let's Play Together!

How Inclusive Playgrounds Benefit Everyone

By Jessica Royer Ocken


Features of an Inclusive Playground

So, what does this sort of fabulous playground actually look like? One thing you don't want is a playground designed so someone looking at it can say, "Oh, there's the special needs section," explained Laurie Schulze, member of the Genoa Township, Ohio, parks advisory board and mother of a child with spina bifida who uses a wheelchair. A nearby community recently constructed a playground with a variety of special, accessible features, "but they didn't include a regular slide," Schulze said. This makes the playground a segregated space, as typically developing children get bored quickly. "If my family can go to a playground—even if my daughter can't climb all the equipment or if she's at an age where playgrounds aren't her main thing—she just wants to be outside. It's about thinking about a fun playground, not a special side of the playground."

An inclusive playground should have a range of challenges, Kaplan agreed. "Too many times when playgrounds are made accessible they're dumbed down and older kids don't want to play, so you miss the purpose of inclusion."

Dave Flannigan, director of operations for program management with KaBOOM!, an organization that builds playgrounds around the country, suggests using an "asset-based approach" to creating fun for kids of all abilities, rather than thinking of the lowest common denominator. For someone in a wheelchair, a ramp to a deck is just one component of play, he noted. Look holistically at what they can engage with.

And while not every item on the playground has to be accessible to every child who comes, "the coolest thing on the playground has to be accessible at all," Kaplan said. "[And that means the feature] you'll write the press release about. That really gives you food for thought when you're planning." Make sure every child can reach the highest point on the playground too, added Schulze.

This kind of integration calls for careful design. "Layout is key," Kaplan continued. Many times people jump right in to looking at accessible equipment. But an inclusive playground that a child with autism can use or a child who uses a walker can use needs a "very thoughtful design," she said. Children with autism can become overwhelmed quickly when faced with a busy play space, so some quiet, enclosed areas will provide a respite where they can calm down for a moment without having to leave the playground.

The playground's surface needs to be safe and easily managed by those with wheelchairs or walkers—poured rubber is a popular choice—and ramps and pathways need to be wide and gradually graded, ideally so a child can manage them independently.

Beyond that, however, the variables multiply quickly and can depend on the specific needs of those in your community (which is why they're a great resource to consult along the way). Every playground should be different, and of course they come in all different sizes, so rather than a checklist to follow, consider creating a series of intents, Kaplan recommended. Discuss the good things you'd like to have and strategies to make them inclusive.