Feature Article - October 2017
Find a printable version here

Widening the Playing Field

Diversity & Inclusiveness in Multigenerational Playgrounds

By Rick Dandes

In this sense, multigenerational playgrounds can become social spaces, environments where people congregate. Think about creating a playground from scratch. Traditionally, you have the structures, a shelter, and benches and picnic tables. Parents come out and set their bags on a table. When the next person comes in, they see a bag, figure it is someone else's table and move on.

"Now think about going into a Starbucks," Lehman said. "It's not unusual to sit in a chair 18 inches away from the next chair, and that is acceptable. What we want to do then is not put picnic tables out there anymore. We want there to be a café feel or some unique seating so that people are comfortable enough to maybe interact with the person next to them. Ten years ago that wouldn't happen."

Good idea, said Sarah Lisiecki, marketing communications specialist for a Fond du Lac, Wis., outdoor playground equipment manufacturer. She suggested having equipment "that performs multiple functions and meets people where they are. For example, a group of parents might be sitting and having coffee inside the play space instead of outside away from the action and unable to engage with their children. The same site furnishings they are sitting on could also be used for kids to climb on and bring play value to the space. This allows different generations to interact in the same space using the same equipment for different purposes."

Universal Design & Inclusive Play Areas

Another thing that is becoming common in park design is universal design, or inclusive playgrounds, McConkey explained. "You have to go beyond just the ADA standards for accessibility, because if you just keep only to that standard, it is limiting and doesn't create environments that are as functional and fun for a wide array of users."

Universal design is a set of principles and an approach to creating environments that are more fun and functional for a wider range of users, regardless of age or ability, McConkey explained. "This is important because when we think about playgrounds, that is exactly what we are trying to achieve in play environments. Empowering diverse populations so that everybody can participate, have fun, and find things that are developmentally appropriate, engaging and challenging."

Some playground surfaces that are technically ADA-compliant sometimes limit grandparents, veterans with disabilities or people who use wheelchairs and can't transfer out of their chairs, McConkey said. "If you have engineered wood fiber, loose fill, as an impact-attenuated surface at a play area, anyone using a wheelchair trying to navigate through that right away realizes it is a problem. It's ADA-compliant because it is tested in a lab-controlled environment, but in general practice, it is not as functional. So, you have to be ADA-compliant, sure. But you need to take it one step beyond, with surfaces, with playground equipment."

Taking that concept one step further is Kent Callison, director of marketing for a Fort Payne, Ala.-based commercial playground equipment manufacturer. Accessibility in playgrounds has heretofore meant ensuring that a play environment was accessible by children with a physical disability. "This is important, and it is required by DOJ Accessibility Guidelines for public parks and play spaces," Callison said, "but access alone does not guarantee inclusion. Truly inclusive play includes access, but it also considers a much wider range of needs—beyond physical disability."

Out of 1,000 children between the ages of three and 21, approximately 85 will have some type of disability, Callison explained. "For example, one of those children will have a physical disability and 41 will have a cognitive disability."

But numbers like one or 41, or even 85 out of 1,000 don't really give a full picture of the population of children affected by a disability. According to the U.S. Department of Education, there are approximately 6.6 million children in the United States who are affected by some type of disability (physical, sensory, chronic health condition, social-emotional, communication, cognitive).

"To put all that into perspective," Callison said, "the entire population of the state of Tennessee is 6.6 million people. That's an entire state's population worth of children who could benefit from truly inclusive play spaces."

What makes a play space inclusive, Callison said, is creating a space that addresses the needs of those 6.6 million children, as well as every other child in the country. The idea is to create a space that allows every child to play together, and to participate fully in a variety of activities in a mutually beneficial way. And while the primary audience of a play area is children, an inclusive play space should be a multigenerational environment that allows people of all ages and abilities to play and recreate with friends and families."

Callison's manufacturing company uses design guidelines found in "Me2: The 7 Principles of Inclusive Playground Design," created in partnership with Utah State University Center for Person with Disabilities. "It's a guidebook of best practices and considerations for upgrading existing or designing new outdoor inclusive play environments."

Callison then noted four products that aligned with their corporate philosophy: a climber that provides auditory, tactical and visual feedback while children climb, play and explore, with three sensors featuring technology that allows individuals with limited upper-body or fine-motor control the ability to activate auditory features; a freestanding motion activity featuring a high-back molded seat with handles and front pommel, allowing children to maintain a neutral body position while spinning; a patented double-wide playground ramp that transforms an ordinary accessible ramp into a play experience for all children; and a collection of precision-tuned musical instruments.

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