Ensuring Inclusive Play
laygrounds can be havens for children of all backgrounds and abilities. On the playground, children can learn to work together in an imaginative game, or they can simply test out their physical abilities on climbers, swings and slides. All children can be drawn into a play area, but once there, you want to ensure that all of them will be able to play together. That's what inclusive play is all about. And, with a large percentage of children living with a disability of some kind, it is imperative that you help encourage inclusive play in your own parks and facilities.
Q: We have a traditional play structure at our park. Why should we consider changing it to make it more inclusive?
A: The National Center for Education Statistics reports that 14 percent of school-aged children have a disability of some kind, including autism, visual, hearing or mobility impairment, learning disabilities and more. The CDC reported in December 2009 that one in every 110 children is on the autism spectrum. Among boys, the total is even higher, with one in 70 on the autism spectrum.
While many children will enjoy playing at your traditional playground, you're leaving a lot of kids out if you don't pay close attention to accessibility and inclusion.
Q: We'd like to add some play elements that are appropriate for children of all abilities, and especially children with autism. What should we know?
A: Children with autism and other sensory processing disorders have different needs. While it has long been recognized that they have a hard time playing and socializing like typically developing children, few have recognized the power of a playground and the way it brings children together to learn and develop as an essential tool in addressing the needs of children on the autism spectrum.
Talk to your playground manufacturer about ways to make your playground more inclusive. Some manufacturers go far beyond simply designing and installing products to also conduct research on children's needs, and you may be able to find guidelines on designing a playground that is more inclusive.
For example, you can find play products that aim to create a welcoming environment for all children, and that give consideration to the needs of those with autism or sensory processing disorders. These products are designed to provide tactile, proprioceptive, vestibular, visual and auditory experiences, as well as help develop motor-planning skills and increase social/imaginative play opportunities.
Look for highly interactive play activities that address all of the senses. You may even be able to match your theme, if your playground or park has its own look and feel. In addition to providing activities, try to provide a playground element that provides for a quiet space where children can escape—alone or with friends—to get a break from the sensory input.
Q: How can we ensure children of all abilities can play together?
A: Inclusive playgrounds aim to serve children of all abilities. In the past, these playgrounds have generally focused on improving accessibility for those with physical disabilities. But even accessible playgrounds have not always been inclusive, which means children of all abilities can play alongside one another.
Look for play products that aim to bring children together to play, rather than splitting those with disabilities or autism from the "normal" play area. Also, you should look for wider-than-normal ramps. One that allows for two wheelchairs to roll alongside or pass by one another will help children with disabilities to feel less isolated.
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