Feature Article - March 2020
Find a printable version here

United We Play

Creating Inclusive Play Spaces

By Joe Bush


"People think of disability as physical; they don't think of visual impairments or hearing impairments," Nance said. "When building this playground, we were able to incorporate everything. We didn't target a population, we just made everything available for all abilities. We didn't say, 'You need a wheelchair swing, so go in this corner, you need a cozy zone so come over here.' Everywhere on the playground anyone can play, and that was very intentional."

Callison said his company helps communities with programming for their inclusive play areas with a guide called 2PlayTogether. It's a playground activity guide designed to foster friendships through inclusive play. It equips educators and programmers with tips and playground activities to promote meaningful play, understanding and fun between children with and without disabilities.

The guide includes disability awareness resources, character education tips, inclusive play activities for elementary school-age children, and inclusion research for educators, programmers and advocates.

Nance said there is no specific programming for the playground, but therapists are suggesting to their families to go to the playground because they can work on therapy goals without realizing it. Special education classes are visiting it as well, she said.

The playground is adjacent to a splashpad and Nance said last summer there were 25,000 people per month. In the colder months that number was 1,000.

"Projection-wise we knew because of the new location it would be a draw," Nance said. "It was marketed as a regional park, and it truly is regional. People have come two and a half hours and now they're looking at houses because of the facility to live here. It's been more than we ever expected."

Research-Based

McConkey said the most important contributions manufacturers make to inclusive play spaces is their open-mindedness and their wealth of data, like the results of empirical research to examine the true effect inclusive play has on the individuals and families that use inclusive play spaces.

"Research provides validation that the playground equipment design is meeting the needs of users, the inclusive play space design is providing therapeutic benefits to the users, and that the play space is engaging people of all abilities to interact, socialize and have fun playing together," he said.

McConkey's company is like other manufacturers that promote inclusive play: using expert suggestions and guides and research to inform design.

He said the most valuable information to determine if an inclusive play space is successful is to conduct research in the field. Did the play space encourage the target audience to come and play? Do the users find the play activities stimulating, engaging and fun? Are children of all abilities interacting and socializing with one another?

"Empirical research as well as observational research and user interviews all provide feedback and input to confirm the design of the play space is meeting the intended goals," he said. "Additionally, we've created an Inclusive Play Advisory Board, which brings together experts in the fields of child development, adaptive recreation, sensory play and occupational therapy. They have been specifically engaged to provide valued guidance for the development of new products, concepts and user experiences."

In the absence of research, or in addition to it, are the Seven Principles of Inclusive Playground Design, created by Utah State University's Center for Persons With Disabilities with PlayCore. They include:

>> Be Fair: Consider all disabilities: physical, cognitive, social/emotional, communicative, and sensory.

>> Be Included: Be sure the space is accessible by all means with ramps, climbers, links and transfer platforms.

>> Be Smart: Make the design simple and intuitive with behavioral clues, sensory feedback, organization, reinforced play patterns and clear expectations.

>> Be Independent: To encourage independent discovery, have accessible surfaces and routes of travel, and slide transfers.

>> Be Safe: Be sure that supervision areas are comfortable with clear sight lines, that there are cozy places to rest, and jump-in points.

>> Be Active: Encourage sustained physical activity, cooperation and socialization.

>> Be Comfortable: Provide space for movement and gathering, that is comfortable for diverse sensory needs, can be reached comfortably, and has relief from the environment.