Let's Play Together!

How Inclusive Playgrounds Benefit Everyone

By Jessica Royer Ocken

Since the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 came into effect, there's been a growing focus on making parks and recreational facilities accessible. And thanks to these efforts, many, many more of them are. However, accessibility includes a whole spectrum of possibilities, and there's a big difference between something that's minimally accessible (ADA compliant), completely accessible, and truly inclusive of people with all types of abilities and challenges.

"Accessible means you can get there. It means you may be able to use parts of the playground, but inclusive means you're playing together with all of the children," explained Mara Kaplan, founder of Let Kids Play!, a consulting firm that helps playground equipment manufacturers and others understand the full needs of a community—including those with disabilities. An inclusive playground is for everyone, and because of that—although it's a bigger undertaking with more planning required and probably some programming needed as well—this type of playground is a benefit to the entire community. And in a world where play is an endangered opportunity for kids of all abilities, there's no better time to build a fantastic playground than right now!

Accessible vs. Inclusive—And Why It Matters

Shane's Inspiration was founded 14 years ago in California and originally intended to be a memorial project for Catherine Curry-Williams' and Scott Williams' son, Shane. He lived only two weeks because of severe spinal muscular atrophy, but even his short life introduced his parents to the world of children with disabilities. "They learned that among many things not accessible were playgrounds," explained Tiffany Harris, a co-founder of the organization and currently its CEO.

The Williamses were thrilled to be told Los Angeles already had accessible playgrounds, but when they went to see them, they found projects built only to ADA standards. "It's a common misconception," Harris said, adding that she believes parks and recreation departments do a terrific job. "You would assume when you meet [ADA standards] you're there. But you're not." For example, some playgrounds include features like accessible swings, but the rubber mulch surface below (which is ADA compliant) makes it impossible for a child in a wheelchair to get there.

And so began an "educational journey," during which Shane's Inspiration learned the big difference between accessible and inclusive, and along the way decided to become a partner organization to help communities build completely inclusive playgrounds, Harris said. Fourteen years later, in partnership with local communities and park districts, they've built 41 inclusive playgrounds in the United States, Canada, Mexico and beyond.

Inclusive playgrounds are "designed to be fully useable and exciting to children with a wide spectrum of abilities," Harris said. You want "typically abled kids having the most fun they can have alongside a child with maybe severe disabilities. The playground is challenging for all, and kids are able to play and engage together."

Features of an Inclusive Playground

So, what does this sort of fabulous playground actually look like? One thing you don't want is a playground designed so someone looking at it can say, "Oh, there's the special needs section," explained Laurie Schulze, member of the Genoa Township, Ohio, parks advisory board and mother of a child with spina bifida who uses a wheelchair. A nearby community recently constructed a playground with a variety of special, accessible features, "but they didn't include a regular slide," Schulze said. This makes the playground a segregated space, as typically developing children get bored quickly. "If my family can go to a playground—even if my daughter can't climb all the equipment or if she's at an age where playgrounds aren't her main thing—she just wants to be outside. It's about thinking about a fun playground, not a special side of the playground."

An inclusive playground should have a range of challenges, Kaplan agreed. "Too many times when playgrounds are made accessible they're dumbed down and older kids don't want to play, so you miss the purpose of inclusion."

Dave Flannigan, director of operations for program management with KaBOOM!, an organization that builds playgrounds around the country, suggests using an "asset-based approach" to creating fun for kids of all abilities, rather than thinking of the lowest common denominator. For someone in a wheelchair, a ramp to a deck is just one component of play, he noted. Look holistically at what they can engage with.

And while not every item on the playground has to be accessible to every child who comes, "the coolest thing on the playground has to be accessible at all," Kaplan said. "[And that means the feature] you'll write the press release about. That really gives you food for thought when you're planning." Make sure every child can reach the highest point on the playground too, added Schulze.

This kind of integration calls for careful design. "Layout is key," Kaplan continued. Many times people jump right in to looking at accessible equipment. But an inclusive playground that a child with autism can use or a child who uses a walker can use needs a "very thoughtful design," she said. Children with autism can become overwhelmed quickly when faced with a busy play space, so some quiet, enclosed areas will provide a respite where they can calm down for a moment without having to leave the playground.

The playground's surface needs to be safe and easily managed by those with wheelchairs or walkers—poured rubber is a popular choice—and ramps and pathways need to be wide and gradually graded, ideally so a child can manage them independently.

Beyond that, however, the variables multiply quickly and can depend on the specific needs of those in your community (which is why they're a great resource to consult along the way). Every playground should be different, and of course they come in all different sizes, so rather than a checklist to follow, consider creating a series of intents, Kaplan recommended. Discuss the good things you'd like to have and strategies to make them inclusive.

Here are some thoughts and ideas from experts around the country:

  • One of the most popular pieces at Leesburg, Virginia's Sycolin Creek Elementary School playground is a huge rocker that can hold up to 20 children, including those in wheelchairs, reports assistant principal Lisa Waldbaum. The preschool-through-5th grade school needed a playground specifically for younger students, and a parent of a child with special needs spearheaded the effort (and additional fundraising) to make it fully inclusive. Soft foam surfacing makes for easy navigation, a shaded area protects observing teachers and parents, as well as kids with light sensitivity, and the playground is long and thin, which means its ramps are not as steep. A smaller rocker for five or six children at a time and sensory areas that include textures, sounds and pieces to manipulate round out the playground's most popular features.

  • Consider more than just the playground, suggested Kaplan and Harris. Benches make parents and caregivers comfortable and ensure a longer stay, as do amenities for service dogs. Be sure restrooms are located nearby and include changing tables for larger children and electrical outlets for those who may need a treatment during their play.

  • Weave in some nature. Taking a stroll through the woods or playing in a creek is something else that may be logistically difficult for someone who uses a wheelchair or walker, so Schulze said she particularly appreciates the elements of nature—an accessible pond and boardwalk, a wetland to search for tadpoles—the city of Westerville, Ohio, added to their inclusive playground. These are also great ways to engage a variety of senses.

  • Think about multi-generational use, as you want this playground to serve and grow with your community for years to come. Go beyond the ADA to design for kids of all abilities and all parts of your community, suggested Flannigan. "This encourages everyone in the community to use the space." You want a play environment that encourages kids to come and stay longer—and want to come back, he added. If they master everything the first time, you've missed your mark.

How to Get Started

Resources and support options, including fundraising tips and grants, abound for those building inclusive playgrounds, but the best place to begin your journey is your own community. Get input from parents, educators, therapists and others who work directly with children and adults with special needs, as they know first-hand what's likely to work best. And don't forget to ask the kids too. Part of KaBOOM!'s development process is having children draw their "dream playgrounds," which have included everything from trampolines to chocolate fountains, Flannigan said.

The community also drives the design for projects Shane's Inspiration is involved with, Harris said. They've heard from parents of children with disabilities, but also from returning veterans who want an opportunity to play with their typically abled children. Shane's Inspiration encourages communities to find local corporate sponsors for the project, to select a theme that will tie the playground to the community, and to get educators involved early to pave the way for a partnership with local schools.

Not only does drawing on the community yield good ideas, but as with any project, the earlier the public is involved, the more ownership and investment they feel. Involving your community in the playground planning educates them about the importance of inclusion and gives them a sense of ownership, according to Robert Carolin, director of leisure services for Ormond Beach, Fla. This can be particularly important for an inclusive playground because of the extra fundraising and effort required. Vice Principal Waldbaum noted that more than 100 volunteers came to help build the walls of her school's inclusive playground, and she said their feedback and active engagement has been essential. "Our fundraising theme was building bridges," she said. "And that's not just bridges between kids and their peers, but between the school and our community."

Building Is Not Enough

Although planning, educating, fundraising and finally installing an inclusive playground is a major effort—and a major achievement—it's likely not the end of the road if true inclusivity is your goal.

Shane's Inspiration's Harris recalls the fun they had selecting benches for the first playground they built and the way they daydreamed about watching all the children play together from those benches. But when their playground opened, "we were shocked by the minimal use by kids with disabilities," she said. Instead, they won lots of awards for being a fantastic place to play, and the place was overrun by typically developing children. When they went into the community to find out why, they discovered many families with children with disabilities didn't come because they worried about ridicule if their children were the only ones there who were different.

In response, Shane's Inspiration added two programs. My Play Club creates an organized day at the park—with games, face painting and goody bags—and is open to all children in the community. At the Los Angeles playgrounds, My Play Club is the last Saturday of each month, and the prizes and entertainment are sponsored by different corporate or civic groups. Saturday is the day the playgrounds see the heaviest use, and the Play Club makes sure families that include children with disabilities feel comfortable there, as they know they won't be the only ones, and they know there's some extra structure in place to help everyone play together and learn about each other.

The second program, Together We Are Able, is a full-curriculum educational program for schools. The other thing Shane's Inspiration discovered as they spent time talking with people about their inclusive playgrounds is a shocking level of bias and misinformation about people with disabilities. This program aims to break down those barriers by providing fourth through sixth graders (and soon younger students, too) an opportunity to talk about their feelings and fears, learn about people with special needs throughout the school year, and take a field trip to an inclusive playground where they're paired with a buddy for the day, who is a child with a disability. What begins with fear and nervousness ends in playing and laughing and sharing lunch, Harris said, and she hopes the experience changes these children's perspectives permanently. The program is "really a wonderful bridge and an opportunity to walk children across it," she added. "The playground is the vehicle to implement programming and make a real impact for inclusivity."

Waldbaum added that some education and insight for students has also been a big help in making the Sycolin Creek Elementary playground truly inclusive. Before the playground opened, two concerned special education teachers worked with students to create videos that explain the rules of the playground, offer guidelines for interacting with special needs students, and show everyone the ways to stay safe. The whole school watched them before going out to play, and now teachers can use them in their classrooms whenever a refresher is needed.

Benefits Abound

Once you've gotten the community on board and created one playground, you may find yourself on a roll. "When you do it right and are not afraid to tell the community from the beginning about the work they need to do, the energy behind the movement just blasts out," Harris said.

KaBOOM!'s Flannigan agreed. "[A playground project can be] a catalyst for change in the rest of the community," he said. "When people come together to build playground, it's a tangible, collective accomplishment. Then they wonder, 'What else can we do?'"

Whatever the extra effort involved, an inclusive playground project is worth it. Not only does it make play possible for the whole community—children with disabilities, adults with disabilities or diseases like multiple sclerosis, older adults with physical challenges, veterans who come home with an injury—it promotes a shift in perspective. "[An inclusive playground] shows that everyone has value," Schulze said. "It teaches children that everyone can be together. When kids are able to play and see a child in a wheelchair having fun, to see what they can do, it changes their perception." This type of interaction moves feelings from pity to understanding, she added. "Then it makes a better world."

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