Socially Inclusive Play Design

Across the country, hundreds of inclusive playgrounds are being built and many children are enjoying them. Somewhere during the design process however, the very purpose for creating these play spaces (children’s play) often gets lost in the details of Americans with Disabilities Act regulations, ASTM safety standards, equipment selections, and budget restrictions. At O’Dell, we know the importance of these issues, but also realize that they are peripheral to the design process and not the focus! Far too often, attempts to plan for children with mobility impairments overshadow the necessity of a comprehensive approach that includes social and emotional inclusion, sensory integration, graduating levels of physical and mental challenges, cognitive simplicity, and opportunities for discovery and exploration. Comprehensive inclusive play spaces are effective when created with an activity based approach founded on evidence based research and design.

Inclusive play environments follow seven principles of design to remove the physical and social barriers to all children fully participating in play. Inclusive play environments and equipment are designed for equitable use to (1) Be Fair; designed for flexibility in use so all kids can (2) Be Included; designed to be simple and intuitive so all kids can (3) Be Smart; designed with perceptible information where all kids can (4) Be Independent; designed to be tolerant of error to (5) Be Safe; designed to require low sustained physical effort so all kids can (6) Be Active; and designed with the appropriate size and space for approach and use so all kids can (7) Be Comfortable. (Based on Me2 manual by Playcore, Inc. & K. Christensen, 2010)

Comprehensive inclusive play environments are created by following these principles and thoughtfully considering the child and their strengths and ability to participate in play independently and equally with their friends, siblings, and neighbors. The emphasis is not on helping the child with a disability to adjust to and accept the play environment, but rather designing the play environment to accommodate the needs and abilities of the child. Inclusive play environments are a fundamental statement about social values and a child’s right to play. These play environments encourage equality of play opportunity, full participation in play, and the independence of the child.