The Inclusive Playground – A Rewarding Challenge

by Maria Feske, Nationally Certified Occupational Therapist

The Inclusive Playground – A Rewarding Challenge

Inclusive play spaces, accessibility, inclusive play.

Many people read these words thinking of a child in a wheelchair. It immediately follows that a playground surrounded by sand, with many high edges and without ramps, is simply inaccessible to such a child –and if suitable play equipment is available, this child must rely on constant support anyway. These thoughts are correct, but they only cover a small part of what really makes a playground "inclusive". Inclusive play spaces are actually quite varied, and their design takes human diversity into account. They do more than merely compensate for "deficits".

Creating the ideal inclusive play space requires a wide range of play and usage options. The space should enable different sensory experiences and provide motor challenges in different gradations. In this way, its design addresses as many different people – with different capabilities – as possible. An inclusive playground should offer large and small, younger and older users alike the opportunity to pursue and build on their personal interests, skills and strengths. Here, different people can embrace and experience their commonalities and differences as autonomously as possible and in close proximity. In this way, a playground can be a meeting place, space where people can learn from and with each other. Side by side, they in this way compensate for or overcome social and structural barriers.

The design of a play space should take the desire for self-determination and autonomy into account; the process should address as many people as possible, including children with wheelchairs. It must not be about "egalitarianism", or "levelling down", however; it is not necessary to remove every sandbox so that the child with the wheelchair does not notice that they cannot run. Such thoughts are in and of themselves discriminatory. This kid can handle their own limits as well or as poorly as any other child.


Paths and Railings

Step-free access to paved paths on the playground site offers an advantage to many children and other users. A path that runs from one play area to another can provide orientation and autonomous play to blind children or those with strong visual impairments. The paved path increases the sense of safety for children with visual impairments. The integration of a railing – a very tightly stretched rope, for example – may make the use of a cane unnecessary. This can free the child's hands for climbing, for instance. They do not need to worry that another child might use their cane in some kind of a game. Elements in the form of tactile symbols can be attached to the railing. These indicate when the child is standing next to a swing, for example. It is not necessary to build a railing along the playground which is intended only for holding. The paved path and railing facilitate access for children with limited mobility, as well. The railing enables different design options. It can have an interesting, varied structure, with acoustic elements, turntables with interesting patterns or sliding elements made of different materials.

Such sensory elements can bring added value to traditional equipment, as well. They invite toddlers, people at the appropriate stage of development and people with sensory impairments to play together, since the sensorimotor experience represents the beginning of active play. This calibrates various sensory functions (sight, hearing, touch) as well as motor skills fine and gross (gripping, rubbing, tapping).

Barrier-free Options

All the same, an inclusive playground should have play options for children in wheelchairs. Paved paths that allow an autonomous access are helpful in this instance. Barrier-free elements could include, for example, sand playing surfaces at different heights, rubber mats as bridges and shallow ramps. The child can use these to access the higher levels of climbing equipment. Climbing devices that rely primarily on upper body strength are also possible. Rope playground equipment with built-in seats is very accessible to some children in a wheelchair. Nest swings, which were originally designed for therapeutic purposes, are popular with many children. The spacious lying area often enables children with and without disabilities to swing together.

The Inclusive Potential of Rope Play Equipment

As mentioned, inclusive play spaces are not simply about eliminating barriers. They are meant to enable a variety of play and encounters. Rope playground equipment offers the possibility to combine different difficulty levels in a single play element.
Younger children can test their motor skills in narrower sections of a game unit. Older children or young adults who like to climb (including those with mental disabilities) can romp in sections with larger distances between the ropes. If hammocks have been incorporated into the play element, people with strong physical impairments have the opportunity to participate in the action. If the movements of the climbing children also transfer to a flat surface, a true sense of community can result.

Another strength of this type of equipment lies in the motor challenge that they pose. This is illustrated through the example of children with ADD or ADHD. They (and all other users also) benefit from the need to concentrate on their movements. At the same time, they can burn off a lot of their overwhelming energy by using their whole body.

There is another advantage for deaf children, in particular. The can move across the different levels while maintaining eye contact with the other children or their caretakers outside of the equipment. The transparency of the rope playground equipment enables them to use sign language when playing, and not feel obliged to speak to draw attention to themselves.

Infobox: The debate over whether or not deaf children should learn spoken language continues. In contrast to sign language, this language is spoken aloud. It should be noted that many deaf people experience discrimination when they speak. Oftentimes, their mental capabilities are underestimated. Based on this and other discriminatory experiences, the Society for Sign Language and Communication of Deaf People ("Gesellschaft für Gebärdensprache und Kommunikation Gehörloser e.V.", or GGKG) advocates for the recognition of German sign language as a minority language. Another argument of the GGKG is that the ability to communicate non-verbally promotes a positive self-image for deaf children (and adults).

A play space that brings together the different languages of deaf and hearing children, which enables the experience of their possibilities and their limits in common play, encourages understanding and acceptance for one another.

For children with visual impairment, a low rope climbing course in which the individual climbing elements are connected, or a play net could mean a new experience of play altogether. They can climb so close to the ground or in a space secured by net mesh without fear, experiment and master greater challenges.


Structure and Retreat Areas on an Inclusive Playground

Designing a play space to be inclusive means taking different needs into account. There are children who find it difficult to be around other people, or require longer break times. This applies to children with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Children with ASD often find it difficult to get involved with new environments, new people and relationships. Often, they are more interested in playing with objects than with other children. Elements that allow auditory, visual and tactile sensory experiences can increase their interest in activity. Their body awareness is often described as subdued, and generally they are fond of repetitive movements. It is necessary to provide them with experiences of a certain intensity, through very high swings, for example, or a see-saw or merry-go-round. They often prefer clear, straightforward structures and sequences. This reassures them. A path can be advantageous here, as well. Separate climbing, sensory, digging, and refuge areas can help them get involved in this environment and to try out the game. Individuals with an intellectual disability also benefit from a clear structure and clarity, since this facilitates orientation and information intake. Children with ASD prefer to have social experiences as a silent observer. Small playhouses that enable a view of the outside and are located out of the hustle and bustle somewhat can serve as such places of retreat. It is possible to integrate elements that appeal to the senses in a targeted manner here, as well.

Playhouses are also a suitable platform for role-playing. Through the imitation of experienced scenes, or complex, even imaginary stories, role-playing reflects and promotes the capability to recognize, understand and engage in social roles in the world.


Inclusive Playgrounds – a Place of Coexistence

The development of the various playful behaviours follows a specific hierarchy, which is valid for all people. Play expresses the development stage of a person, not just their age. Age levels that are assigned specific behaviours result mostly from rule-development and are fully justified. However, they do not necessarily apply to a person with a physical or mental disability. Different stages of development go hand-in-hand with different play interests. When planning and designing an inclusive play space, the big challenge is to enable the pursuit of different interests for different body sizes and mobility levels.

Designing an inclusive playground means creating places where the openness, curiosity and impartiality of children – with or without disabilities – makes clear the richness of cooperation and togetherness. Creating an environment that takes human dignity into account does not mean finding the lowest possible denominator. Rather, it means enabling the potential of a society in its entirety to experience and to benefit. This is a rewarding challenge.


Photo: Berliner Seilfabrik GmbH & Co.


About the writer: Maria Feske is a nationally certified Occupational Therapist with many years of experience in working with children and adults with disabilities. She is the mother of a 4 year old boy and is currently working on her thesis to conclude her studies in Psychology. As a consultant for Berliner Seilfabrik, she and the team at the Berlin play equipment company design playground concepts that are up to such special challenges.



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