Inclusion at the playground ‒ A thrilling challenge

Inclusion at the playground ‒ A thrilling challenge

"Universal design" means the design of products, environments, programmes and services to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design. "Universal design" shall not exclude assistive devices for particular groups of persons with disabilities where this is needed. (From the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Article 2, Definitions)

There's nothing Robin loves better than playing on a swing. But he cannot manage to get onto a normal swing in a normal playground. That's because the bright and bubbly seven-year-old is wheelchair-bound owing to a mobility impairment. So it's a good thing that there's a playground close to where Robin lives where an alternative has been found to bark mulch on the paths and sand underneath the play equipment in favour of wood and surfaces with good traction for wheelchairs. And the swing at Robin's favourite playground has also been designed to meet the needs of children with disabilities. Children can lie, sit or stand on the so-called "bird's nest swing". The tripod design is intended to provide enough space for a wheelchair, meaning that Robin can approach it in his wheelchair and climb onto the low seat without assistance. And swing away to his heart's content. And if he finds it too boring alone on the swing, its seat with a diameter of 120 centimetres allows for some of his friends to join him!

Planners have to create playgrounds that are accessible to all and can be used by all. However, in different parts of the world there are also very different approaches to children's playgrounds when it comes to integration, accessibility and the use of playgrounds and their equipment. But some basic rules should apply everywhere.

The first step in creating an integrative play environment is to provide an accessible infrastructure and accessible surfaces around the play equipment as well as appropriate play activities. Many activities that can be accessed at or from ground level should be available to all users. Different activities attract different age groups. The activities should be designed ergonomically so that the intended group of users can enjoy the playground. Access to activities at a higher level, i.e. ones that can only be accessed via or at a level higher than the ground, should be offered via an interim platform or a ramp, according to the ADA Guidelines*. For example, some users with walking aids can climb on by means of slanting climbing nets. Suitable ways of accessing higher-level equipment mean that there is no need for classic ramps. Offering many different opportunities for play, that's the key to user-oriented playground planning. Multifaceted activities increase variation. Multiple activities are often popular with users. One example of these is themed play apparatus with a slide and climbing options. Another is rotating equipment that also offers sand play, or play tables that can also be used by adults as a bench, or a swing that additionally serves as a meeting place.

When planning playgrounds for children with disabilities, it is necessary to consider the need for challenging play activities. Like other children, those with disabilities need a selection of important challenges. Children in wheelchairs can, for example, use the strength in their upper body to raise themselves into a climbing net, autistic children can cooperate and integrate socially with others on a rocker. These are examples of challenges that support well-planned play environments in an entertaining way.

The social aspect of a playground is a fundamental aspect. Playgrounds where children can interact with each other socially through physical play, such as opportunities for competitive swing play, rotating equipment or ball sport opportunities, create a friendly and appealing atmosphere. For wheelchair users who cannot get up out of their chairs themselves, the transparency of the play equipment is of vast importance as they can nonetheless participate in play and thus be integrated.

Playground users who cannot use the playground without a wheelchair need additional help in accessing some activities. Play apparatus at ground level is essential for these children. Users who cannot leave their wheelchairs can also make use of ramps. These enable them to reach higher levels and look down from them. However, as many wheelchair users can cover short distances without their wheelchair, the ramp should not lead to activities that take the children too far from the bottom of the ramp, e.g. a slide to the other side, since otherwise the way back to the bottom of the ramp, where the wheelchair is, will be too long.


The Kompan philosophy of universal play design

All children should enjoy the opportunity to spend time at playgrounds, use them and make them their own, in their own way and to the best of their abilities. Everybody wants to join in, be part of the fun, take part and not be excluded. That is also the desire of those who have to live with disabilities. "Many things immediately look different when you change your perspective. In that sense, inclusion is a campaign for a change in perspective. It is not the person who is disabled. It is the environment that disables him or her when it does not take his or her special needs into consideration," explains Kompan Germany's managing director Christian Seidl.

Supporting this change in perspective is, of course, a major challenge, especially for all public institutions. But Kompan's philosophy is that inclusion begins with the little things, and that also means with the youngest members of our society, who meet each other in the sandpit or in play areas without prejudice and as equals, be it with more or fewer handicaps. A universal and accessible playground design is a fundamental prerequisite for attracting users with disabilities. For Kompan, accessibility is a minimum requirement for any playground.

On the basis of its own philosophy, the ADA Guidelines* and the UN recommendations on universal design, the Kompan Play Institute has developed a set of principles for the design of playgrounds and play equipment for all. "Every child has the right to leisure and play. Regardless of age, nationality, gender, the colour of their skin, social and religious background, physical and intellectual abilities ‒ children have the right to play, on their own or together with other children. It is not only us at Kompan who are convinced of this. These principles are also in line with the UN Convention on the Rights of Children," says Jeanette Fich Jespersen, head of Kompan's own Play Institute.

Kompan has long taken universal and integrative design into account and done its utmost to comply with the guidelines of the "American with Disabilities Act" in whose development Kompan even played an active role. All children, including those with disabilities, are taken into consideration in the development and production of playgrounds. "Universal design is a key element of our philosophy and an important part of our history. The Kompan homo ludens, the human at play, is an expression of Kompan's conviction that each individual is unique and precious," says the long-time head of the Play Institute.


* American with Disabilities Act


Photography: Kompan

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