Guest Column - October 2020
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Designing Inclusive Play on Splash Pads

By Chris Thomas

Creating "inclusive play" areas is not only a priority for parks but also aquatic facilities. Today, many recreation departments, homeowners associations and community centers are installing splash pads that welcome users with a wide range of developmental, cognitive and physical abilities, including different age groups, especially older generations acting as caregivers.

There is a trend in all playgrounds—whether dry play or aquatic—to design a play area that includes all community members, regardless of their age or abilities. Splash pads are no different; sections within the play area are created to attract and encourage a wide range of patrons. Also, a variety of water features, flow, spacing, size and color can make the facility even more accessible. The inclusive play trend coupled with the needs of a community together dictate specific requirements within a splash pad.

"Community input meetings are crucial to the design process," says Adam Brewster, landscape architect at Dunaway Associates. "We engage the users to get a better understanding of their needs. On a recent project our community outreach meetings included a participant with physical and cognitive limitations, reinforcing the importance of making our project fully accessible. This experience was invaluable for our team as it helped ensure our design would make it easy for her to enjoy the splash pad with her family," Brewster added.

Physical/Mobility Limitations

The surface and slopes of a play area must be designed with users in mind. The structural slab upon which the splash pad is built is extremely important for those with physical or mobility limitations. The water must drain properly to avoid 'puddling' or 'ponding' as this can be dangerous for users.

"The surface must be flat and provide clearance for maneuverability around each of the play features," Brewster said. There are specific requirements for slopes and cross slopes on splash pads dictated by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to ensure safety and inclusivity. The placement and size of drains must be planned so the water does not collect in an area and create hazards.

Not only do users with mobility limitations need to be able to move from place to place on the splash pad, but they must also be able to operate all the features. "Being able to grip, grasp, push and pull different components is something not all children can do," Brewster said.

Splash pads especially designed for inclusivity use features that are intuitive to operate. "In the past, we thought having many activators and programable features around the facility would foster inclusivity, but we discovered many users were unable to operate those features," Brewster added.

Designers agree many features can be too complex for some users to manipulate. The more successful features are those where one can just walk up and start using them rather than having to look for the activator. "Water cannons are one of our favorite features," Brewster said. "The up-and-down motion of the unit turns it on and off, making it extremely simple to operate."

Developmental/Cognitive Limitations

The arrangement of play features is key to ensure those with developmental or cognitive limitations have areas within a splash pad to participate. "A variety of sensory experiences that build upon one another make the facility more inclusive for those with developmental and cognitive limitations," explained Brewster.

For example, designers can create a sequence of features, starting with sensory exploration with something as simple as a bubbler, and slowly graduating to increased intensity, which draws users into the splash pad. When done properly, this sequencing provides participants the opportunity to try something more powerful, like an archway with spraying water, but also allows them to quickly retreat to a less forceful water feature. Moving from one zone to another allows users to explore the area at their own pace. "What we have learned with cognitive and developmental stages is each child develops their ability to process sensory experiences differently," Brewster said. "It is therefore important to have zones with lower water use that progress through a sequencing path, which moves up to more energetic features, such as dumping buckets."

Today, many elements are available that make play sequencing an engaging attraction. One can start with a range of bubblers and water-weaving features to create visually interesting patterns, which draw users into the splash pad without the fear of being confronted with a lot of water all at once.

"Another one of my go-to favorites is the 'mushroom maze'—a simple, yet attractive design for users of all ages and abilities," Brewster said. "Kids can either play from outside the mushroom of water or sit under the dome of sprays, which creates a pleasing white noise and allows them to retreat into a world of their own."