Playground Access for All Abilities

The following guest post was written by Mara Kaplan of Let Kids Play. Mara has 15 years experience designing and operating inclusive playspaces. Let Kids Play provides accessibility services to organizations that operate playgrounds or other playspaces. In addition, Let Kids Play helps parents and grandparents select perfect toys for children with disabilities.

Mara is the editor of accessibleplayground.net which includes a directory of accessible playgrounds throughout Canada and the United States as well as providing significant information about accessible playgrounds.

Research study, after research study has proven that children need to play. Children need to play because it makes them healthier and less likely to become obese. Children need to play because it makes them more focused in school. Children need to play because it teaches them social skills that are essential to becoming adept adults. Although play has been decreasing from our landscape, many children are still out there playing on playgrounds.

According to the United Nations, 10% of the world’s population has a disability. Other studies in the United States and Canada have put that number as high as 20%. To create a good playground, design is incredibly important. During the design process, we must be conscious of accessibility issues to ensure that we don’t leave out 10-20% of the children. Playgrounds are often inaccessible because no one talked about it at the beginning of the design phase. Make sure that your committee includes people with disabilities, parents who are raising children with disabilities, and other stakeholders.

One of the major decisions you will need to make is about surfacing. If a child cannot get to the playground all of the other issues are moot. Therefore, you need to look at how people get from the parking area to the playground and ensure that there is a smooth path making it easy for people using wheelchairs, pushing strollers, or using other mobility devices to reach your playground. Then you need to think about surfacing. Except in the United States, there are no required standards on accessibility. However, in Canada, the UK and other countries there are voluntary standards dealing with surfacing and safety.

To make a playground truly accessible, you do not want to use loose fill. Loose fill surfacing such as sand, pea gravel, wood fiber, and rubber shreds is very difficult to push a wheelchair or stroller across. In addition, many parents who are raising children with developmental delays and autism have expressed concerns about their children eating loose fill or putting it into their nose or eyes. There are parents who are raising children with autism who will not go to a playground when the surfacing is loose fill.

Synthetic surfacing such as pour-in-place, rubber tiles, and turf designed for playgrounds are workable alternatives to loose fill. Although these options are all more expensive upfront, they do not require the constant maintenance of loose fill. The other benefit is you don’t need to add new fill on a regular basis. To meet safety standards, loose fill needs to remain at a certain depth, which requires regular purchases of new fill.

Once you have made a decision about surfacing—which is probably the most expensive decision you will make–you need to keep in mind that children’s abilities, regardless of their diagnosis are very diverse. Remember that all disabilities are not physical. There are children with autism and other sensory disabilities. There are children with a variety of learning disabilities and developmental delays. Therefore, you don’t have to put all of your money into a ramped structure. If you do include a lot of ramps there should be something significant to do at the top of the ramp. It should be recognized that it will never be possible for all users (whether they have a disability or not) to access all equipment or play activities.

The key to good playground design is for your playground to have a large variety of activities to attract children of all ages, heights and abilities as well as differing interests. There should be a balance of ‘easier’ more accessible play elements along with those that are more challenging. Consider including a variety of ground level activities. If there are not enough play elements that provide challenge, some children will go elsewhere to play, making the playground less inclusive or they will create their own challenge, making the playground more dangerous.

In this video you can see how children with disabilities do not need ramps to play.

Sensory play is important for all children and it is especially important for children with disabilities. Sensory includes movement as well as touch, sound, and smells. Parents have often expressed that the most important play equipment in a playground are swings. Playground manufacturers now make bucket swings with good seat belts to help children with disabilities position themselves in the swing.

Although the following video is long, it provides you with a understanding of the importance of sensory play. The video also demonstrates the positive impact good design has on children with disabilities and their parents.

Landscaping is another important part of playground design. Plantings can add great smells and textures. Landscaping can be designed to create quieter areas for children to have time away from the hustle and bustle of the playground. Landscaping can also ensure that there is shade over the playground. Shade is important for all children, but for some children with disabilities it is essential. If there is not natural shade, playground manufacturers have created a variety of ways to add shade to your playground.

To recap, here are the top ten things to think about when designing an accessible playground.
1. Make sure that “accessibility” stays on the table throughout the design process.
2. Include people with disabilities and parents who are raising children with disabilities on your planning committee.
3. Select synthetic surfacing for your playground.
4. Include a wide variety of playground activities.
5. If you are putting in ramps, make sure there is something to significant to do at the top of the ramp.
6. Provide a wide variety of challenge.
7. Include swings in your playground.
8. Provide a lot of sensory activities in your playground including movement, sound, and tactile.
9. Use your landscaping to enhance your playground by providing more sensory input as well as creating quieter places within your playground.
10. Make sure that your playground has shade.

If you have other questions about accessible playgrounds you can reach Mara at mara@letkidsplay.com

2 responses to “Playground Access for All Abilities

  1. Oh..what a great playground…I hope it is also accessible for wheelchair-bounded people so that they can also experienced what other children do…Thanks for sharing the information with us….

    • Thanks so much for your interest. This was a guest post by the very knowledgeable and passionate Mara Kaplan of Let Kids Play. Check out her site if you haven’t already had an opportunity to do so – http://www.letkidsplay.com/. I hope you’ll continue to drop in from time to time.

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