Kids Just Wanna Have Fun

Playground design trends mix excitement with accessibility and safety

By Kelli Anderson

It's the million-dollar question: What makes a playground fun?

Research groups study it, manufactures try to design it, communities pay big bucks for it and kids—well, kids just know when they get there.

Children of all abilities can enjoy the "I Can Fly" playground at William S. Baer School in Baltimore

In the wake of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission's (CPSC) guidelines in 1981 to make playgrounds safer, coupled with the need to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) guidelines in 1991, many playgrounds across the country were systematically stripped bare of anything high or that moved. Playgrounds often lost their fun-factor. And the needs of children with disabilities, although given a spotlight thanks to the ADA, have still been largely misunderstood and unaddressed. Until now, that is.

So what does make a playground fun? Various groups in the industry touch that proverbial elephant like the blind men in the fable, sometimes coming to different conclusions that if taken together, still make a pretty good composite picture. What they all agree on, however, is that making playgrounds not only accessible but universally accessible so that children of all abilities can play and interact together throughout the structures is the single-most sweeping trend in the industry.

It's an exciting time for those who have waited so long on the sidelines, separated from their peers and unable to enjoy the most fundamental element of childhood—play with other children.

Excitement in playground design through more activity-based play events is also capturing the industry's attention. The thrill factor is back. Making playgrounds a joy for all children is a concept whose time has come.

Check it Out

According to 33-year industry veteran and innovator, Steve King, co-founder and chairman of a playground manufacturer, the biggest mistakes made by communities or groups installing a playground are poor site analysis and needs assessment.

Here's a rough guide to avoid some of those common pitfalls:

  1. Get input and feedback from kids, caregivers and the city to find out what people truly want and don't want in a playground.
  2. Accurately estimate the number of children using the playground and make sure playground events for the age groups are age-appropriate and separated by groupings in ranges 0 to 2, 2 to 5, 5 to 12.
  3. Made in the shade? Take note of the sun's direction and orient seating, play structures and shade features to maximize comfort.
  4. Noah's ark? Get rid of that storm water. Check out soil and slope for adequate drainage.
  5. Line of vision? Make sure caregivers can see all play areas from their supervising locations and that police can see the playground when driving by.
  6. Check that curb cuts, surfacing and equipment choices maximize the accessibility and usability for children and their caregivers with disabilities. Go above and beyond the letter of the ADA—make it fun for everyone.
  7. Is there adequate parking, accessibility for emergency vehicles and accessible pathways from parking areas to the playground?
  8. Many manufacturers and special-interest groups offer design help—take advantage of their experience.
  9. Check with local as well as state and federal codes and regulations to make sure you are fully compliant.
  10. Kids first—remember, the playground is for the kids—make it a fun place to be, with interesting things and where all kids can have access and be in the middle of play.

No child left behind
This Los Angeles park offers an innovative, universally accessible playground.

One out of 10 children in the United States has a disability. They are a broad population ranging from the most easily recognized with wheelchairs and mobility devices to those whose presence is largely undetectable—those with hearing loss, who are blind or struggle with sensory integration such as children with high-functioning autism. Despite their large numbers, families with children with disabilities often do not make their needs or their presence known in a community, which lead some to the false assumption that they do not exist.


Frustrated at playground designs following the minimum ADA guideline requirements (which may have ramps or transfer points but offer little else), these families often choose not to go to the majority of playgrounds where their children are sidelined at best with nothing to do once they get there or worse, have to remove their mobility devices and crawl around in a dehumanizing, foreign fashion. Most simply choose not to go.

Ten years after the ADA, the concept of universal accessibility—bringing children with disabilities not just to the playground equipment but engaging them with their able-bodied peers on the equipment—has taken flight. Paradigm-changing playgrounds are now being designed with a greater understanding of what it takes to allow children with disabilities to fully participate and be in the center of play, such as the playground at the Siskin Children's Institute in Chattanooga, Tenn., designed by Boundless Playgrounds or Aiden's Place in Westwood, Calif., designed by Shane's Inspiration. It is not uncommon for families to come from as far as 100 miles away to take advantage of an opportunity for their children to experience the benefits of play, which are not only physical but also cerebral and social. Kids just wanna have fun together.

Bridging the gap

"The biggest practical issue is opportunity for children to get to the play space," explains Jean Schappet, creative director and co-founder of Boundless Playgrounds based in Bloomfield, Conn.


"Playgrounds may have access components, but they can't get to it," agrees Ron Derk, director of sales and marketing for a playground manufacturer, pointing out a common problem. "Some have surfacing but no path to the play area. A child can't get to it or a parent who is disabled."

Basic considerations include curb cuts; accessible surfacing for wheelchairs such as poured-in-place rubber, rubber tiles or rubber nuggets; accessible pathways at transfer points and ramps; catwalks wide enough to accommodate mobility devices; and transfer points and ramps that don't require the child to "take off their legs" as one child put it, so that accessing with dignity is possible.

"In most places I have to crawl out of my wheelchair," says Jeffrey, 9, describing the experience. "I feel like an ant."

Show Me the Money

All playgrounds can be universally accessible so that children of all abilities can interact and enjoy the benefits of play together. According to Jean Schappet, founder of Boundless Playgrounds in Bloomfield, Conn., which has helped design and consult universally accessible playgrounds since 1998, regional projects that have budgets from $150,000 to $200,000 can more than adequately manage a universally accessible design. However, smaller projects whose budgets are more limited can still be universally integrated with a little creative help.

"If a budget is between $20,000 to $50,000 for a small playground, one grant of $5,000 to $10,000 makes a huge difference," Schappet says. "One small grant could change the whole environment."

  • Organizations like Boundless Playgrounds, Shane's Inspiration and Hadley's Park Inc., which are devoted to making playgrounds universally accessible, offer plenty of strategies for collaborating with foundations and communities to raise additional funds.
  • Playground equipment manufacturers offer many financing options as well as offering their own lists of generous corporate and organizational sugardaddys.
  • Charitable organizations like Ronald McDonald Charities can link projects to local and national foundations and set up matching funds.
  • Fraternal organizations like the Lions, Kiwanis or Rotary can be quite generous.
  • Neighborhoods, sometimes required to come up with half the budget costs of a new playgrounds, often use fund-raising yard sales, donations, pooling employer's matching funds and grant programs.

  • Thinking outside the sandbox

    Universally accessible playgrounds are often veritable wonderlands with play features that challenge children at all levels and with all abilities. Thinking outside the typical slides, swings and catwalk structures, designers and manufactures have raised the creative bar for what a playground can be.

    For example, in understanding the benefits of centripetal force for children with sensory integration needs like Aspergers Syndrome or Autism, there is now a spinning playground component designed especially with these children in mind. Another component, a rocking-motion swayer, is designed to allow children with and without wheelchairs to activate it together. Helping to better address accessibility needs—and getting economic benefits in the bargain—there are also ground-level structures including play elements like half-panels with ample footrest clearance for wheelchairs.

    Manufacturers are listening more and more to the wisdom of such consulting and design groups like Boundless Playgrounds, Shane's Inspiration and Hadley's Park Inc., whose passion, research and experience with special needs children have given them unique insights into the complex world of designing fun for everyone.

    Surface Tension

    "What's wrong with that picture?" recently asks one parent, gesturing toward a colorful play structure at her neighborhood school playground. "There's a ramp, there's fun stuff to do—but look at the surface. How's the child in a wheelchair supposed to get there?"

    No matter how great your play elements, no matter how well designed and accessible and integrated your structure design, without the right surfacing children or their caregivers with disabilities can still end up watching from the sidelines. Not only that, but poor installation and poor maintenance of surfacing materials in playgrounds is downright hazardous.

    "Forty percent of all accidents are caused by poor maintenance at playgrounds," says Steve King, co-founder and chairman of a playground manufacturer. "Number one by far is maintenance of surfacing."

    Views differ according to preference and philosophy of playground design. Shane's Inspiration, for example, uses poured-in-place surfacing exclusively to allow children with disabilities to go anywhere their able-bodied peers are going. Others will tell you a mix of surfaces according to need is fine, such as accessible pathways being notably near accessible features and transfer points. And still others will tell you that wood fiber at the proper depths is the best surfacing—at least for fall-height areas. When money is the main deciding factor, however, it pays to take life cost and the maintenance quotient into account. Organic surfacing materials may ultimately cost more in the long run due to never-ending replacement costs resulting from decay and kick-out.

    In general terms, here are some of the most common surfacing materials in order of initial cost, from low to high:

      Wood chips, pea gravel, sand—do not meet ADA guidelines for accessibility, require periodic refilling especially under kick-out zones like swings and slides. A definite playground no-no by today's inclusive standards.

      Engineered wood fiber—as the most widely used product at 70 percent to 75 percent of the market, wood fiber is also ADA-approved, albeit not the easiest to traverse by wheelchair, but is excellent in fall-height areas for lessening impact-related injuries.

      Recycled rubber nuggets—rubber tire chip fill that's eco-friendly. They can be installed in kick-out zones in two layers where loose nuggets are poured over a lower grid to eliminate kick-out wear.

      Rubber tiles—rubber material with interlocking tiles that come in a number of thicknesses for fall-height safety. They come in many colors, manufactured by several companies and little to no maintenance required. Often has a higher initial cost.

      Poured-in-place—a rubber-based liquid mixed on site and poured into forms that can create colorful designs and visual interest. Probably the most ADA-friendly regarding accessibility. Initial high cost for product and installation but virtually maintenance-free.

    Playing it smart

    "There is a wide enough range of current products that children of all abilities can be supported," Schappet says. "It's a matter of how to configure the components to maximize play. The play environment isn't important in essence—it's fun things to do and be, and being in the middle of play, child-focused. We need to be focused on what they do when playing and provide accommodations for all children to have the opportunity to play."

    In practical terms, that means providing something for everyone, everywhere. If you have swings, provide the surfacing necessary to access the swings and have at least one or more with molded high backs to support a child with a range of disabilities. In the sand area, provide a raised play sand table or remove seats from stationary sand shovels positioned near the edge of the walkway for children with wheelchairs.

    In high areas like climbing walls that can't always be modified to meet special needs, provide a parallel activity next to it where children can interact even if not on the same component. Environments can be designed so children with mobility impairments will still be in the same area as rigorous upper-body events.


    Equipment is just half the equation, however.

    "The other half is imaginative design involving communities, family, landscape architects and contractors," says Catherine Curry-Williams, founder and consultant with Shane's Inspiration in Los Angeles. "We're working at creating more sensory elements like water walls with sound and touch elements that children can feel and hear. We're working with the Foundation of the Junior Blind because there are no opportunities for these types of children."

    Although only operating as a design and consulting business for a few short years, Shane's Inspiration is already international in scope and has been instrumental in convincing the city of Los Angeles to create at least one universally accessible playground in each of its 15 districts.


    Shane's Inspiration, named for its founder's infant child who died of complications associated with Spinal Muscular Atrophy, hopes all playgrounds will one day reflect its visionary design philosophy. Likewise, Hadley's Park Inc. began when its founder, Shelley Kramm, discovered that there were no parks in her hometown where both her daughters—one with a disability—could play together. She set out to change her neighborhood for the better and helped establish the first fully accessible playground in Maryland and is now helping others change their communities too.

    Water walls, sand tables, swings for all users, story nooks, structures with sound and touch elements, half-panels with games and puzzles, and spinning and rocking play events are all elements of a playground that would excite any child but also allow the interests of children with special needs to be addressed so they, too, can play, have fun and interact with the world around them.

    Playing it Safe

    Most accidents on playgrounds are caused by poor maintenance. Communities often wait until there is an unfortunate accident—something jarring followed by the much-feared lawsuit—before they realize the error of their ways.

    Surfacing maintenance is the worst culprit where regularly scheduled raking, cleaning and refilling of wood products is a must to keep the fall-height areas around swings, slides and climbing apparatus at their best.

    Inspections of anything that moves (especially swings) are another maintenance must.

    "Parks crew and support should inspect parks on a monthly basis," says Bob Holling, director of park and recreation and forestry for the city of Sun Prairie, Wis., who oversees 32 park areas in a growing community of 22,000. "Even those who mow the grass weekly can check for broken things. We even have signs in all our parks with phone numbers where people can call us about safety when something isn't right."

    When complaints are made or graffiti noticed, being quick to respond is key.

    "Appearance is very important," Holling says. "If it's running down, you've got to do something to it—whether you get complaints or compliments, you can't blow it off. We try to be as responsive as we can."

    Manufacturers also try to make maintenance easier by often supplying instructional videos and information. Accidents as a percentage are on the decline. Better maintenance is one way to keep it that way.

    Swinging into action

    Playground design, having also benefited from the earlier focus on safety brought on by the CPSC, is now turning its attention to excitement—fun that includes height, motion and a thrill factor. Safety and fun are no longer mutually exclusive.


    "In the past playgrounds were homogenous to the point that we took all the fun out," Derk says. "Playgrounds became low and all the same. The guidelines caused all of us in the industry to overreact but—while the guidelines are still there—we can have elements of perceived risk."

    Perceived risk is an element of play event design that is bringing excitement back to many old staples of the playground and helping to invent new ones. Manufactures and designers are finding ways to create physical challenges—events that have a thrill factor and take time to master, which keeps kids coming back for more.

    Climbers, for example, are about the hottest item these days with styles and multidimensional shapes to suit all age groups, followed by a succession of physically fun events like funky-shaped balance beams that tilt as the child progresses along or slides with steep twists and turns and features that allow multiple users with double and triple chutes. Manufacturers are coming out with events that involve bouncing, swaying, swinging and centripetal motion. New materials are also making a debut as manufacturers and designers continue to make play features that swing into action.

    A child-focused playground is all about fun—fun that comes from interacting with other children, from the thrill of accomplishing something challenging at all levels of age and ability. It's physical, mental and social. It's play that manufacturers, designers and communities need to ensure, keeping in mind what really matters: KIDS.

    First Contact

    For more information on understanding ADA compliance and universally accessible playground design, the following organizations are a good place to start:

    Boundless Playgrounds,

    Shane's Inspiration,

    Hadley's Park Inc.,

    Siskin Children's Institute,

    Foundation for the Junior Blind,

    Americans with Disabilities Act,

    © Copyright 2022 Recreation Management. All rights reserved.