What is an inclusive playground?

It is becoming ever more important that we recognise the advantage to children of time spent outside. Outdoor play gives them the opportunity for healthy development, interaction with their environment, and an appreciation of the natural world. It is particularly important that children with disabilities are included in the sharing of these experiences and activities, and a sympathetically designed play area will make these opportunities available to all children, regardless of ability or background.

Inclusive play does not mean that every play element is accessible to everyone, but it does mean that children do not feel segregated according to their abilities.

A typical example is the play tower. Some children will want to climb to the top of it to satisfy their desire to achieve, but some will be happy to indulge their imagination at a window halfway up the tower. Others will gain a sense of achievement by simply entering the base of the tower in their wheelchair, and participating in some activity at ground level. Yet others will take pleasure from walking, running, or simply sitting, in the vicinity of the tower. But to all of those children, the tower answers their need.

How to make an inclusive playground?

Diversity of opportunity is the watchword, and, paradoxically, this requires careful planning in order to make it appear natural and unforced.

This doesn’t need to be complicated, but it does mean giving some thought to what different children can access – what can a child engage with if they use a wheelchair, or if they have autism or get distracted easily? Can disabled and non-disabled friends and siblings play together?

One thing you don’t want to do, is to mark out a separate area and say, ‘This is our accessible area’. The whole area should have varying levels of participation and complexity at or around each item of equipment. Let the child choose!

What should an inclusive playground contain?

A good inclusive playground will contain a wide range of play opportunities. Aspects to consider are:

Physical: As well as the usual equipment for sliding, swinging, climbing, balancing, consider areas for running, wheeling, walking; a wall for ball games, an area for clambering with varying heights and skill levels.

Social: Areas where children of all abilities can gather for chatting, reading and storytelling; tables and benches for playing games; open spaces for group activities.

Creative: Quiet spaces with natural materials for making things; a sandpit with benches where children can sit with feet in the sand; weeping trees and sensory domes for dens; sensory plantings for an appreciation of nature’s variety.

A special needs swing from MacVenture

How to encourage sensory stimulation in a playground?

All children can flourish in an environment where the senses are engaged. Use materials and activities which can be explored through use of the senses such as interesting textures, shapes, solidity, weight, pattern, colour, temperature. Consider the various types of sensory impairment (sight, touch, hearing, smell) so that there is always something to interest and stimulate the child.

Vary the levels of sensory stimulation: heighten it in some areas and reduce it in others. This gives children a choice, allowing them to meet their specific needs.

How to make a playground accessible?

An accessible playground clearly needs equipment that is accessible to a range of abilities and disabilities. But this is not the whole story. For a playground to be truly accessible, children need to be able to get to it, and get around it.

Children must be able to get to the play area from school, home or car park – so the whole journey is important, not just the space itself. This journey might involve vehicles or public transport, so consideration should be given to access from parking spaces and nearby streets. Pathways should be smooth and of adequate width, and signposted where necessary.

Within the play area, aim for a surface that has good impact absorption but is relatively firm. Avoid deep loose materials such as bark and soft grass that could hamper wheelchairs and those with walking difficulties. Consider widths, height and reach for different children, including scope to include wheelchair-adapted play facilities.

A wheelchair accessible roundabout from MacVenture

Don’t forget the family when designing inclusive play

Make sure there is seating and shelter nearby for parents (and grandparents!) and carers. They may have disabilities themselves so ensure good access from seating into the play area so they can support the children. Another important point is to ensure that disabled and non-disabled siblings can play together.

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