Feature Article - July 2017
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Something for Everyone

Inclusive, Multigenerational Playgrounds Have Broad Reach

By Deborah L. Vence

Some of the features include poured-in-place rubberized surfacing, and a double zipline featuring a traditional disc seat and a bucket seat with a shoulder harness. "This is our most popular piece of equipment, which gives kids of all abilities the opportunity to ride and race each other side by side," Millington said.

In addition, the playground features a swing that accommodates one to six children and has become a favorite feature for children with autism due to its swaying/swinging motion. A custom sensory tunnel is another favorite component. "This custom piece is a tunnel with star cut-outs of different colors. When the sun shines through the stars, they light up in their color throughout the tunnel and move around as the sun moves directions," she said. "This is a great piece to take a break from the action in a [quieter] spot."

The rehab team at the University of Minnesota Children's Hospital helped pick out equipment that could be used as therapy during play.

"It has quickly become a favorite play space," Millington said, "and we have also accomplished our mission to have a space where kids with and without disabilities are playing together, creating new friendships, as well as parents with physical disabilities having the opportunity to play with their young kids."

Even more importantly, "The response from the community has been amazing," she added. "Families are coming from hours away to utilize Madison's Place not only for play, but also to work on their physical and occupational therapies in between doctor visits."

More awareness of the benefits of healthy choices in early life, not only related to diet and early education, but also for exercise and social participation, marks another trend in inclusive playgrounds today.

"This trend facilitates support for active outdoor spaces. As mentioned, the increase in autism and the advocacy around this condition has increased awareness of the need for and benefits of sensory-based outdoor play," said Mallioux, who has helped a Monett, Mo.-based playground equipment manufacturer design inclusive playgrounds.

"One thing that would lead to even better outcomes would be the involvement of people knowledgeable in child development in the planning and purchasing of city and school playgrounds," she said.

Those decisions currently are made mostly by business-minded administrators who prioritize cost, durability and safety. "More experts in the benefits of active play with novel motor challenges and sensory-rich experiences," Mallioux added, "will save money in the long run and make communities more satisfying, engaging and meaningful for all."

When creating play spaces, Callison's company considers the environment first, and how to make it usable and beneficial to all people. "We use the guidelines found in Me2: The 7 Principles of Inclusive Playground Design, created in partnership with Utah State University Center for Person with Disabilities and our parent company, PlayCore. Me2 is the only evidence-based design philosophy in the industry," he said, adding that it also is a guidebook of best practices and considerations for upgrading existing or designing new outdoor inclusive play environments.

"Within the play environment, and within the design guidelines to make that environment inclusive, we've introduced new play products that are innovative, fun and aligned with research-based best practices," he said.

Examples include a climber that features sensors that provide auditory, tactical and visual feedback as children explore, as well as precision-tuned musical instruments designed in compliance with AS™ standards for playground areas.

"By thoughtfully designing a play space to align with best practices, and selecting playground equipment that addresses the needs, and provides developmental benefits for children of all abilities," Callison added, "you create a play environment that is truly inclusive."

Best Practices in Inclusive Play

Best practices for developing inclusive playgrounds include a number of factors, such as going beyond accessibility.

"Make sure the playground meets the DOJ Guidelines for accessibility, includes ramped access, creates accessible routes of travel to and throughout the play area … but don't stop there. Design a play space that addresses the needs of the whole child and of every child," Callison explained.


  • Select play equipment that addresses all five developmental domains: physical, social-emotional, sensory, cognitive, and communication. These five developmental domains are interrelated and interdependent, and an inclusive playground that addresses all of them can enhance the social relationships, physical and mental health, and brain function of children of all abilities.
  • Create cozy spaces on the playground for children to seek sensory relief. Some children crave sensory input, while others do not. For those who need relief from the noise of a playground, it's important to provide quiet or semi-enclosed places under decks or crawl tubes for children to until they are ready to re-engage.
  • Consider the location of the playground. No matter how accessible and inclusive it is, it doesn't serve its purpose if no one can get to it. Think about the proximity of the playground to nearby families, whether it is served by public transit and how far it is located from the nearest accessible parking spaces.

"This is a best practice that is often overlooked or not considered, but I offer it from my own personal experience. I have a daughter with special needs," Callison said. "When she was very young, she would run away from us at every opportunity. If you turned your head for a second, she would bolt like a scared horse. The clinical term for this is 'elopement,' and it is a condition that affects many children, and their parents.

"We encourage the use of natural barriers like plants, shrubs and other landforms to create a natural barrier outside the play environment. Even manufactured fencing will work. You don't have to create a full barrier or make children feel as if they are 'caged in.' The idea is to create a visual perimeter that discourages elopement and encourages children to stay inside the designated play area."