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02.12.2019 - Ausgabe: 6/2019

Promoting inclusion through physical activity, games and sports. Playground planning as an example for generating more encounter

By Dr Volker Anneken & Isabel Stolz & Dr Vera Tillmann, Research Institute for Inclusion through Physical Activity and Sports (Forschungsinstitut für Inklusion durch Bewegung und Sport)

© Forschungsinstitut für Inklusion durch Bewegung und Sport an der Deutschen Sporthochschule Köln

1 Movement - Meeting - Participation

In public spaces in particular playgrounds provide children and youngsters with opportunities to exercise in a playful way while at the same time they represent meeting areas. It is here where children and often parents, grandparents or other legal guardians across all generations get in contact with each other. Against this background, playgrounds and other public play areas in the social space represent places for playful and movement-oriented encounters. 

When dealing with the question on how this place of encounter could be transformed into an inclusive meeting point, a closer look must be taken at the exact definition of the term inclusion, which to some extent is meanwhile used in an almost inflationary way. Ziemen (2003) explains the term as follows:  "The starting point is a change of existing structures and understanding whereby the diversity of persons (heterogeneity as normality) is considered as a prerequisite to ensure that every person is given the necessary support that they will need to participate in social life.". To achieve this, the following two points are of particular importance: First and foremost inclusion requires a change of structures and framework conditions in a way which makes them accessible to everybody whereas it is in no way intended to "adapt" persons with disabilities to the already existing structures. Secondly inclusion is based on the diversity of persons which also means that the necessary support and benefits are as different as the persons who receive such support.

Regarding the development of (public) play areas and playgrounds it means that they must be adapted and made accessible to persons with different backgrounds in a way which allows the persons involved a self-determined usage. But at the same time this means that persons with disabilities will receive the support they need to come, for instance, to the playground and benefit from its offerings. An important principle for these considerations is that a self-determined participation in social life, as it is stipulated in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and ratified by the German government in March 2009, is the implementation of the applicable laws and not a matter of charity.  This implies the overall social responsibility to realise inclusion as a general rule and provide the necessary structures to do so. This becomes particularly obvious in consultancy services and discussions on inclusion in politics, social service sectors, self-help structures and the most important associations' structures for social cohesion as an important anchor of self-determined recreational and voluntary activities. Many parties involved develop action plans on "inclusion" and deal with the implementation of the UN-RPD in their specific context. In the meantime increasing attention has also been paid to this issue at an urban and municipal level, in particular regarding the necessary urban issues to improve accessibility and create more opportunities of participation for everybody in the sense of inclusion. In addition, this year's "Inclusion Days" organised by the Federal Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs with an emphasis on culture and leisure, sports and tourism show the increasing attention on integrating inclusion into our everyday life and public spaces. 


Exercise & Sports - a wonderful medium for more inclusion

Exercise, games and sports can promote a healthy overall development regarding the physical, mental and social levels of effectiveness.  Regarding the physical level, the development of the basic motor functions such as mobility, strength and endurance, speed and coordination play a significant role by laying the foundations for an exercise-oriented way of life. From early childhood on curiosity and the willingness to explore play an important role for the overall development through the development of one's motor functions by exploring the environment in a playful way. To do so the kinaesthetic awareness, the vestibular perception as well as the cognitive functions which pass on information to the muscles, tendons and joints, for instance regarding the coordination skills, are very important factors.(Hunger & Zimmer, 2015 S.31) If a child, for instance, jumps off a climbing scaffold, this activity is connected with the assessment that the shock of the jump is perfectly absorbed by their knees and by estimating the optimum take off point to avoid falling and injuring oneself. The jump as such is in turn connected with the direct emotional experience of successfully overcoming obstacles and the resulting positive experience of self-effectiveness. One's own body feedback, however, promotes the kinaesthetic awareness, that is to say that the jump has succeeded which in turn has a positive effect on the body image as an important part of one's self-concept. Subsequently the feeling of success creates feelings of happiness after the challenge has been mastered. The self-concept regarding the skills of a child is being addressed and may thus stimulate other similar activities due to the positive causal interdependencies of subconscious conclusions such as "I am good at jumping off the climbing scaffold and I like it". A positive self-concept and reasonable body awareness can hence be considered as positive results of important development tasks in the early childhood.  Because it is in this way how feelings of success and experience of failures are processed, through which the child is able to get to know him or herself and gain confidence and trust, (ibid, page 35). The triad of "I am able to - I want to - I do" shows the cause-effect-linkages which lead to a positive management of further tasks (Anneken 2007).

The playful interaction with others on common play areas provides in this context a special potential of social learning and joint action which - by realising shared activities - might represent an important factor of inclusion. Through common activities it is not only that joint exercising takes place but also places of encounter are created which promote an open and unbiased interaction with each other.  At a playground as a place in the social space, however, the social impact level of sports could create framework conditions which allow joint encounters at a low-threshold level. Because in particular for children with disabilities this is particularly important because their physical activity in their leisure time mainly takes place in an informal way outdoors with friends (58.8 percent), in contrast to organised club sports (39.9 percent) (Anneken & Stolz, 2017).


The relevance of playgrounds and play areas for exercise and sports

Health promoting effects of exercise, games and sports have their starting point where one's motor skills are being stimulated which in turn leads to further leisure activities and the building of social contacts.  The "common experiences" also play a very important role in this context because a positive self-concept also reflects experiences with the social environment.(Hunger & Zimmer, 2015, S.35). Thus children both broaden their own horizons of experience through their activities in the context of exercise, games and sports with others while at the same time they receive information about other persons' trust in their abilities or how they are assessed by others or maybe about the behavioural expectations of others in their direct environment (ibid. page 35). The mutual influence of children with different ability and skill levels can provide important experiential and development impulses which in particular are created through the different suspense elements of diversity, interaction and by challenging each other (ibid. page 45). Thus the movement space must provide framework conditions which offer manifold movement offerings to enable the children to contribute their individual strengths and to share experiences and achieve high competence (ibid. page 45).


2.So what is needed to make inclusion work? 

To ensure successful joint playing at playgrounds, first and foremost all barriers which restrict the free accessibility to children with disabilities, must be removed. On the internet there are already many ideas available regarding the inclusive design of playgrounds (see inter alia https://behinderung.org/barrierefreie-spielplaetze.htm, https://nullbarriere.de/spielplatz-planung.htm) as well as in trade journals (see inter alia Köppel & Grundner-Köppel). 

However, to enable the children to participate in a self-determined way, user aids which are adjusted to the functional limitations of the playing children such as accessible floor coverings, wider entrances, entrances and exits with little upward gradient or additional handrails as well as devices with acoustic signals, will have to be provided (Agde, Degünther, Hünnekes 2013, p.57).

To simplify the design concepts of playgrounds, play devices could be marked and categorised according to barrier-free accessibility and difficulty levels. Thus an overview of devices which are accessible for all children without external help and which of them must be supervised or require assistance when using them, will be provided (ibid. page 56). The increased risk of slipping due to weather conditions should also be taken into account. In addition, shortcuts, simplified target achievements, hiding places and low-threshold offerings for joint games should be provided to meet the requirements of heterogeneity of playing children and to allow everybody to experience the feeling of success.  This could be achieved for instance by providing thematic role plays or authentic and natural play areas with different floor coverings, hills, plants and caves with, if ever, only few barriers. 

Apart from these specific examples, it is recommended to involve persons with impairments or disabilities already at an early planning stage because it is them who know best about their needs. This must be taken into account particularly against the background that the construction of playgrounds generally should be designed in a barrier-free accessible way and in accordance with the existing relevant DIN standards. So far there are only few types of barriers which could not yet be assigned to standardised specifications, such as for instance the question on how to involve children suffering from attention deficit disorders, because for them too much stimulation will represent a major challenge.  And how could tactile guiding systems on playgrounds be designed for deaf-blind children or how could children with visual impairment be provided orientation at playgrounds? Besides the information about the existence of barrier-free accessible playgrounds must be published. To do so, specific online portals, such as https://www.spielplatztreff.de/barrierefrei might be useful.   

Regarding future concepts it would be desirable to include these issues and questions to make full use of the movement and meeting potential of inclusive playgrounds. 




Agde, G., degünther, H, Hünnekes, A. (2013). Spielplätze und Freiräume zum Spielen: Ein Handbuch für Planung und Betrieb (3., vollst. überarb. Aufl.). Praxis : Sport. Berlin: Beuth Verlag.

Anneken, V. (2007). Zum Stellenwert des Sports für Menschen mit Behinderung - Herausforderungen für den deutschen Behindertensport. in H. Deimel, G. Huber, K. Pfeifer, & K. Schüle (Hrsg.), Neue aktive Wege in Prävention und Rehabilitation Köln: Deutscher Ärzteverlag, S. 227-242.

Anneken V., Stolz. I. (2017). Inklusiv Aktiv - gemeinsam im Sport.: Abschlussbericht zum Projekt. Retrieved from https://www.lvr.de/de/nav_main/schulen/sport/sport_lvr_schulen.jsp 

Anneken, V. (2009). Zur Bedeutung von Bewegung und Sport für Kinder mit Behinderung. Praxis der Kinder-Reha II, 4.Jg., 99-102.

Hunger, I., & Zimmer, R. (Eds.). (2015). Bewegungschancen bilden. Schorndorf: Hofmann.

Köppel, L.,Grundner-Köppel, B. Barrierefreie Spielplätze und Freiräume zum Spielen. retrieved from https://playground-landscape.com/de/article/view/1644-barrierefreie-spielplaetze-freiraeume-zum-spielen.html

Schliermann, R., Anneken, V., Abel, T., Scheuer, T., & Froböse, I. (2014). Sport von Menschen mit Behinderungen: Grundlagen, Zielgruppen, Anwendungsfelder (1. Auflage). München: Urban & Fischer.

Ziemen, K. (2003). Anerkennung - Selbstbestimmung - Gleichstellung: Auf dem Weg zu Integration/Inklusion. Retrieved from http://bidok.uibk.ac.at/library/ziemen-gleichstellung.html

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