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Inclusive schoolyards and playgrounds - A question of barrier-free accessibility and school development

By Frederik Bükers (University of Hamburg), Dr Jonas Wibowo (University of Wuppertal) and Christoph Henriksen (University of Hamburg)

© Peter Holtz (Schule Elfenwiese, Schulleitung)

The term barrier-free accessibility is referred to nearly everywhere in our current everyday life. Passenger lifts or wheelchair ramps in public or private buildings, acoustic traffic signals or tactile guidance systems on sidewalks are all measures aiming at barrier-free accessibility.

In Germany, barrier-free accessibility has become one of the key terms in public debates on equal opportunities for persons with disabilities and the accessibility of public spaces (see Tervooren&Weber, 2012). These debates are based on the changes in our understanding of disability. It is not the disability of a person, such as physical or visual impairment which are the focal points, but the barriers in the environment of persons, which generate obstacles for every individual. Viewed from this perspective, basically everybody could be affected by obstacles or barriers and be impaired or feel hampered by them (Kastl, 2016). However, persons with disabilities are more frequently affected and in particular hampered by barriers so that the concept of barrier-free accessibility is of much greater significance to them to ensure equal opportunities for their participation in social life (Heck, 2012). In general one can say that barrier-free accessibility is a basic prerequisite for the participation of every individual in social life and thus a prerequisite for inclusion, that is to say the collective life of persons with and without disability (Bethke, Kruse, Rebstock & Welti, 2015).

In particular, architecture is affected by the conceptuality of barrier-free accessibility. In this context, it has meanwhile become a quality criterion, "as one of the basic elements of sustainable construction and as such (as; the author) a natural characteristic of future-oriented built environment" (according to the Federal Ministry of Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety, 2016, p. 16). This "self-evidence" is emphasised by the assessment of experts which states that "a barrier-free environment is absolutely necessary for approximately 10 percent of the population, necessary for approximately 30 to 40 percent and comfortable for 100 percent (Federal Ministry for Economics and Labour, 2003, p. 3).


Barrier-free schoolyards and playgrounds as a part of an inclusive school and educational system

Dr Sven Degenhardt, Professor of Education, has recently called for the implementation of barrier-free accessibility in the school construction for persons with a visual impairment (education for blind and partially sighted persons) according to the public debate about inclusive school development which was initiated by the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) (United Nations 2006/2008) after its entry into force . 

In his article "Imagine, there is an inclusive school and you can't get in...!" he postulates: "Today’s (!) school construction must anticipate and implement the needs of barrier-free accessibility of all schools of the (near) future" (Degenhardt, 2018, p. 148). This does not only concern class rooms and technical class rooms, but also schoolyards and school playgrounds.

Schoolyards and playgrounds which can only be accessed and used by students without disabilities, must be considered as exclusive areas, because joint or,more explicitly, inclusive playing is complicated, hampered or even impossible. Of course the same applies to playgrounds. Places without barrier-free accessibility thus show high potential for exclusion and are to be considered as antagonists of inclusive areas. 

That means that the currently available schoolyards and school playgrounds might thus be considered exclusive areas because usually their play equipment is neither accessible nor usable, for instance, for wheelchair users. It often fails because the play device in question is surrounded by an invincible trench or – in case it is accessible by wheelchair users - it cannot be used by them due to the dimension of the wheelchair. Hence the prerequisite for joint playing among walking and wheelchair using children depends on the availability of devices and the space structure. Barriers of that kind can easily be avoided by applying the so-called "wheels-feet-rule"(see Lebenshilfe Wittmund e.V., a German organisation dedicated to supporting persons with disabilities & the Regional Environmental Education Centre, 2002) during the planning process, or can at least be identified in case they already exist. Here the central question is: Are all play offerings consistently usable for both wheelchair users and walking persons? 

But attention: "barrier-free accessibility" means much more than just "suitable for wheelchairs" and concerns much more than the mere proper construction. Both becomes clear when reading the following definition of barrier-free accessibility stipulated in the German Act on Equal Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities (German abbreviation BGG, 2002, § 4): Structural and other facilities, means of transport, technical equipment, systems on information processing, acoustic and visual sources of information and communication facilities as well as other designed areas of life can be considered barrier-free accessible as long as they can be found, accessed and used by persons with disabilities without any external help. This includes the usage of disability-related aids (Federal Ministry of Justice and for Consumer Protection, 2002 / 2018).


Barrier-free accessibility? Yes! But how?

Regarding the design of schoolyards and playgrounds of schools and playgrounds within public spaces this means that several specific needs concerning the barrier-free design must be taken into account. Can, for instance, students a with hearing or visual impairment use the playground of the school and its equipment? However, aids such as walker frames or walking canes must also be considered. Furthermore potential barriers must be taken into account when planning the systems for the processing of information, for instance regarding signposting or guidance systems. Barriers of such nature can easily be both identified during the planning process if they already exist or at least be avoided when applying the "two senses principle" (see Lebenshilfe Wittmund e.V. & the Regional Environmental Education Centre e.V, 2002) by answering the following question: “Is all the information provided perceptible through at least two of the three senses (seeing, hearing, feeling)? “

Besides when presenting the information, for instance, on signs, the so-called “KISS- Method” (Lebenshilfe Wittmund e.V. & Regional Environmental Education Centre Schortens e.V., 2002) should also be considered. The abbreviation KISS means "keep it short and simple". In short: Express yourself clearly and understandably.

The requirement for barrier-free accessibility concerns different conceivable room zones of schoolyards and playgrounds, such as infrastructures (main thoroughfares and outgoing secondary ones), play equipment (swings, slides, water games, etc.), seating areas and resting places, equipment storage sites (equipment rooms, garages, containers, etc.), associated sanitary rooms, etc. Not only students but also teaching staff, adults of all age groups (parents, grandparents, etc.) must be taken into account.

The question on whether finally all room zones or just a minimum number of play devices have to be designed in a barrier-free and accessible way for all potential users, is hence a fundamental issue, which unfortunately up to now has only seldom been raised as a central topic (Strauß, Möller, & Hohenauer, 2016). It must be discussed to which extent the differentiation of schoolyard design must be considered, i.e. which criteria appear to be reasonable for a minimum set. It does not make sense to do without a climbing wall or a slide by arguing that these devices are not accessible for most wheelchair users. It should be asked which offerings provide similar challenges and could be made available to this group of persons.

Regarding the German-speaking area, it can be summarised that barrier-free accessibility of schoolyards and playgrounds as well as play equipment has only been given marginalised consideration, if at all, regarding both exercise-related and educational aspects. In order to come closer to answering this question regarding minimum requirements, both theoretical and conceptual bases as well as empirical research approaches would be necessary but do not yet exist.

In case of urgent need the recommendations of the German Institute for Standardisation may offer a frame of reference. Both the DIN-18040-1 regarding "barrier-free construction and planning bases, Part 1: Publicly accessible buildings" as well as in particular the revised version of DIN 18034 9/2012 "Playgrounds and Open Spaces for playing" (Details on DIN-18034 see Köppel, 2018) provide assistance with regard to barrier-free building design. In addition Degenhardt recommends for instance the application of the guideline on barrier-free building (Federal Ministry of the Interior, for Construction and Housing, 2016) not only regarding phase zero, i.e. the planning phase but also for every construction phase of the project (Degenhardt, 2018). 

It should, however, be considered that even the strict application of the DIN-standards or other similar check-lists will not guarantee completely barrier-free accessibility for all. One of the reasons for this is the effect of barriers. Barriers reflect a response relationship, they are "individual, subjective, context and intention sensitive and thus time dependent." (Heck, 2012, p. 328). The needs with regard to barrier-free accessibility can be contrasting, that is to say compete with one another.  Hence the needs regarding barrier-free accessibility of persons using walking canes and wheelchairs may be conflicting (a kerbstone as a tactile sensor or as a barrier) and thus not workable as a one-size-fits-all approach (Kastl, 2016, p. 103). However, "the reasonable recognition of this utopian character of barrier-free accessibility as such does not alter the fact of the principle and the political meaning of the "barrier" concept as a phenomenon of disability" (Kastl, 2016, p. 103). Hence, it is an important requirement for all parties involved in the planning and implementation processes to find constructive solutions for the current contradictory circumstances. However, this does not change the overriding objective of developing best possible barrier-free accessibility to and in schoolyards and playgrounds for all users. 

According to Leidner's conclusion (2007) the question of "what exactly is barrier-free accessibility?" must be put into the background. The question should rather be: "For whom is what barrier-free accessible?" (ibid, p. 33).  He suggests compiling a catalogue of information on impairment-specific needs regarding barrier-free accessibility, which could be referred to and made use of on a needs-oriented basis. Unlike the "catalogued" knowledge about the specific focal points in the special needs education which is geared towards individual user groups, the Universal Design (UD) asks for the highest common denominator regarding the measures towards barrier-free accessibility to cope with the dilemma of importance and simultaneous utopia of a perfect barrier-free accessibility. U.D., in turn, subscribes to the ideal of making products, services and architecture accessible and usable to all user groups, if possible, and thus making them attractive. Initial approaches of applying UD on playgrounds can be found in the English-speaking world (Lynch, Morre & Prellwitz, 2018). Both approaches can also be dealt with and used in a complementary way. If aiming at the widest possible accessibility and usability for all, an orientation towards impairment-specific needs is recommended. 

However, complex challenges require interdisciplinary cooperation. Teaching staff and stakeholders in the area of special pedagogy and education for persons with disabilities, (landscape and interior) architecture, sports equipment and playground equipment industries as well as persons who are personally affected by disabilities should be involved and closely collaborate in an intensive and creative manner regarding the planning of new buildings or refurbishing work of school buildings and sites, including schoolyards and playgrounds. It is decisive to look at all existing room areas used by potential users of schoolyards and playgrounds. When designing and selecting the play equipment, creativity and discussions are of utmost importance. On the one hand it is essential to meet the challenge of designing a barrier-free and thus accessible and usable area. On the other hand its challenging character will have to be maintained to maintain its full potential regarding exercise and movement education. To do so, the above mentioned question is fundamental to ensure that each exercise task can be managed by all users or if it can be considered sufficient if everybody has their individual exercise task.

Recently some successfully designed play devices have been published and promoted in this trade journal (as for example by Seibert 2019). But the question of from when on exactly a play device may be classified as barrier-free or inclusive, has apparently not yet been fully clarified in view of the described relational character of barriers as such. In order to avoid making promises which cannot be fulfilled it is obviously necessary to create differentiated labels. There could, for instance, be labels with the following reference: "barrier-free for wheelchair users“ or “barrier-free for blind persons“. However, probably closer to the truth would be labels saying: "low barrier potential for wheelchair users“.


Challenges of an inclusive school development

To act in an inclusive manner means, inter alia, to become aware of barriers and to remove them (Bükers, 2017). However, this could represent a major challenge because often the necessary expertise is missing on site and at the individual schools, but also in the federal institutions for teacher training and school development. It is indeed utopian to assume that barriers could be removed easily. However, a starting point could be the (further) development of teacher’s further education by providing them with knowledge about potential effects of barriers due to material and spatial reasons or circumstances. Another measure to promote inclusive school development could be the provision of advisory offices which could support users in the implementation. These service centres could be installed within the state institutes for teacher training, at regional educational or information centres or near universities. It would be even more desirable to have a school internal service facility, respectively an official representative for barrier-free accessibility. If the relevant school is not supported by a special pedagogue, this function could be assumed by the teaching staff after having realised the respective adequate training measures. There are manifold opportunities at schools for consultation in connection with barrier-free accessibility, not just regarding schoolyards and playgrounds. In our point of view the following task areas are particularly important:


  •               Project planning and management within the (school) building context                             (regarding both new buildings and renovation works) 
  •              Materials and equipment (for instance workplace equipment and design and/or               necessary aids)
  •              Planning and implementation of events or consultancy in case of events (such              as school parties, school sports festivals, excursions)
  •              Consultancy regarding the barrier-free design of school lessons (for example                regarding aids, use of media and methods)


In future, it will furthermore be important to develop analytical tools, which enable us to identify material or spatial barriers to provide us with tools for the school development. In this spirit one project is currently implemented at the University of Hamburg. "Heading for the Break!“ is a collaborative project of authors of the Faculty of Educational Science between the work fields of exercise, game and sports and special pedagogic funding priority of physical and motor skills development. Apart from training prospective special education teachers on barrier-free accessibility, the project called "Heading for the Break!“ aims at developing an analytical tool which helps to determine barrier potential at schoolyards and playgrounds. The findings gained from the project „Eine Halle für alle – den Lernort Sporthalle barrierefrei gestalten“ (One gym for all – designing gyms as learning places in a barrier-free accessible way) helped to identify the barrier potential of sports halls (Bükers & Wibowo, 2018, 2019, in review) and served as a basis for the aforementioned project.

The four pictures were taken in the context of the project „Heading for the Break!“ and show a  good-practice-example of needs-oriented school and playground design with regard to important aspects of material or spatial barrier-free accessibility. It should furthermore be mentioned that this schoolyard belongs to the „Elfenwiese“ School in Hamburg – a school with the special pedagogic funding priority of physical and motor skills development. Here the barrier-free accessibility was focused on the basis of the students' needs in a narrower sense. When planning the design of the elements regarding barrier-free accessibility the main focus was on answering the question about the precise definition of barrier-free accessibility for this school's students. Thus special attention was paid to the characteristic of vertical and horizontal accessibility. On picture 1, inter alia, a wheelchair-oriented roundabout is shown with barrier-free accessibility through an absorbing tartan track. Picture 2 shows an elevated flower bed. Wheelchair users can ride through underneath. Picture 3 shows a height-adjustable sand pit which enables also persons to play with sand who can only bend down with considerable effort or not at all. Picture 4 shows a sun sail which in case of need will shade individual parts of the schoolyard or playground and thus enable all students to play outside even on hot summer days.

In sum, barrier-free accessibility is a basic prerequisite for participation and consequently for inclusion. Despite its utopian character it is important to increasingly and carefully consider barrier-free accessibility, particularly with regard to inclusion, also at schoolyards and playgrounds.



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