Guest Column - July 2015
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Splash Play

Bringing Inclusion to Water Play

By Shanley Hutchinson

Water is a powerful medium. Not only vital to our existence, it provides a profound source of enjoyment in our lives—unlocking our innate desire to play, laugh and explore the world around us. The aquatic play pad or spray park harnesses this medium to provide a play space that can be enjoyed by people of all ages and abilities. As the recreation industry raises the bar on the inclusivity of play spaces, water play opens up a constellation of solutions. By stimulating a range of sensory experiences, providing an inviting landscape for safe play, and making fun possible for all users, the aquatic play pad is bringing communities together in meaningful ways.

Designing for Inclusive Play

Expectations for a modern play space are evolving. Both designers and users want spaces that are equitable not only in access, but also in fun. A park can be designed to standard with the best of intentions, but will it leave players with positive feelings, new friendships, their limits tested and confidence boosted? And how does the use of water make a difference?

An important first step toward inclusive design, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) sets out basic ground rules that make the playground accessible for the broader community and its diversely abled individuals. For example, ADA standards require that playground pathways are wide enough for a wheelchair user to navigate and that elevated play features be balanced with ground-level features. But, once a child accesses the ground-level play feature, what kind of experience do they have? New thinking looks beyond standards of accessibility to understand the play experience itself. Is the feature appealing and enjoyable? Does it stimulate the senses? Does it give the user a choice in play style? Can they interact at their own pace? These indicators of usability present us with valuable guidelines to ensure a play space is enjoyed to the greatest extent for the greatest amount of people. Many of them are expressed naturally in water play, making the aquatic play pad an exciting frontier for inclusive design.

Coming to Our Senses

From the cool sensation of a fine mist to the pitter-patter of rain drops and shimmer of sunlight on a flowing stream, water packs a wealth of perceptible information. Sensory perception is an increasingly influential factor in the design of modern play spaces. Appealing to sight, sound and touch, water offers a spectrum of experiences that stimulate the player's diverse sensory abilities. While sensory elements can be limited in a traditional playground setting, they are abundant on the aquatic play pad. The fluid, ever-changing movement of running water animates the playscape with its dynamic properties. Whether it's the spectacular splash of dumping water or the tingling pressure from a water nozzle, sensory information allows players to discover a space using their own intuition. It also accommodates more contemplative, gentle play habits to balance the energy requirements and action levels on the play pad. Introducing just a handful of aquatic features can open up different points of access for players to discover the same space together, side by side.

By tapping into the universal language of water, a play space can become a cherished destination for any community.

Height and depth can present challenges in a play space, making fun exclusive for some users. By eliminating these barriers, the play pad presents an inclusive design solution. The ground-level platform combined with a smooth nonslip surface makes it easy for users of all ages and abilities to join in play. While features are designed to discourage climbing, they gush, spray, splash and dump thrilling volumes of water to keep players on their toes. Gathering on the same plane also fosters social and cooperative play rather than segregating users. Parents and guardians get a clear view on the field of play and can readily join in the fun from surrounding areas. On the play pad, everyone gets to feel like they're at the heart of the action.

Zoning In on Play

Water play comes in all shapes and sizes—from gentle sprays to super-size splashes. Through careful planning, both can fit on the play pad. Aquatic features can be clustered for toddler, child and youth age groups to create distinct zones for different play styles. In a toddler zone, water features are smaller, with lower flow for calm, gentle play and discovery. A zone for older children introduces adventure with exciting, themed features that spark the imagination. For older kids, a youth zone offers big action and excitement with large overhead features like dumping buckets and ample room to run around. Thoughtful spacing brings the play zones into harmony by safely channeling players through distinct run paths and ensuring maximal fun for all. Whether they want to dip their toes in or get soaked—a zoned play pad lets kids choose the kind of experience they want.