Feature Article - July 2021
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Play Along

Inclusive Playgrounds Help Us All Play Together

By Dave Ramont


Here's something we can likely all agree on: Kids need to play. Beyond having fun and getting exercise, play provides so many more building blocks in a child's development. "Play is essential for all kids; it contributes to cognitive, physical, social and emotional well-being of children and youth," shared Jennifer DeMelo, director of special projects at KABOOM!, a nonprofit working to provide play space equity by working with communities to build play spaces that are often designed by the kids themselves.

And since play is such a critical part of a child's development, it's even more important to have play spaces that all kids can access, including those with physical and cognitive disabilities, autism, sensory challenges, visual and auditory impairments and the medically fragile. According to the Magical Bridge Foundation, this includes one in four of us. Unfortunately, this population has often been excluded from traditional playgrounds, but in recent years there have been greater efforts by grassroots groups, communities, municipal leaders, nonprofits and playground designers to address these inequities and make play spaces more universal for all.

ADA requirements for new as well as existing playgrounds vary based on who owns the playground. And state, city and county ordinances must also be considered. And while many advocates and designers feel that minimum requirements simply don't go far enough, there seems to be momentum in the right direction when it comes to going beyond minimum standards to make spaces truly universal.

"The conversation around inclusive play is growing," said Jill Moore, an inclusive play specialist with a Minnesota-based manufacturer of commercial playground equipment. "It's no longer a trend, but a movement. Communities want to ensure they're inviting everyone, and it starts by creating environments that say yes to kids and yes to inclusion. It's at the forefront of everyone's minds; they're asking the questions on how they can design a playground and make it inclusive to all."

Moore's company offers a guide with tips for planning, designing and building inclusive playgrounds, and in it they stress the importance of universal design, described as "a process that enables and empowers a diverse population by improving human performance, health and wellness, and social participation." It is pointed out that applying universal design does not mean that all the fun and risk of a park or playground is eliminated, but it helps create a place where everyone can play, learn and grow together. Inclusive playgrounds also allow adults of varying abilities and ages to actively engage with children in their care, therefore fostering a multigenerational gathering space.

"Universal design is not about fixing a space for one specific disability demographic, it's about creating a space that everyone can use," said Moore. "Incorporating that into the planning stage helps set the tone for the entire project from the playground and splash pad to the bathrooms, pathways and site amenities. This allows as many people as possible to have a meaningful experience in the space."

Since playgrounds do offer opportunities for kids to develop physical, cognitive, sensory and social skills, it's good to include a balance of all these experiences when designing with inclusivity in mind. By using a wide range of materials and textures, and natural elements such as sand, water and plants, you can help create an environment that is sensory-rich. Most kids are captivated by visually stimulating surfaces and moving objects, therefore interactive play panels are popular. Simple things like color can generate strong responses for some kids, and for children with low vision, it's helpful to include elements that offer strong visual contrast, especially to highlight sudden elevation changes. Music panels and instruments spark creativity and curiosity, and various bells, chimes, metallophones, xylophones, drums and other percussion instruments are showing up in more play spaces.

Social play—even if just observing—is important, and it's good to provide a variety of gathering spots. But it's equally important to provide cozy, quiet spaces for those needing a break. Cognitive play can happen in groups or individually, and games, tracing panels, mazes, etc., can enhance problem-solving skills and provide educational opportunities. Kids of all abilities benefit from physical activities that require balance and coordination, and improve muscle strength and endurance, motor planning and cardiovascular exercise. Amenities that feature sliding, spinning and swinging can sharpen senses and offer vestibular and proprioception experiences. And while you want to include overhead events at different heights, and features like balance beams and stepping forms, it's also important to include ground-level activities for kids to explore play experiences at their own pace and comfort level.

Moore explained how their team worked to innovate and create a barrier-breaking swing, and described how it delivers an accessible, no-transfer swing option to all wheelchair users that can be on the playground alongside everyone else, "allowing us to swing with our friends and help not only propel, but actually control our own motion. This innovation truly gives individuals of all abilities a chance to participate, imagine and finally enjoy one of the best parts of the playground, and get swinging however we move."