Practical guidelines for building inclusive playgrounds

By using the 3D-model of play it is possible to analyse a complete playground, park or a single playground item on how inclusive it is. Building 1 toy that is fun, challenging and accessible for all, will proof to be very hard to do, but by providing a well-thought-out mix of products and by connecting different elements in a good way, it will be possible to build good inclusive playgrounds. The key element is, to provide a variation of products that - all together - offer an exiting play experience for each child.

But the 3D-model of play does not tell the full story. The 4 fundamental principles to make inclusive play happen in practice, are: Accessibility, Play-value, Open-ended design and participation. Below we compiled a list of practical recommendations to guide and assist playground builders to improve their work and to learn to include the viewpoint of all children.

ACCESSIBILITY: Wheelchairs, walkers and grandparents

The whole park and a large part of the equipment should be basically accessible for all children and parents. Make sure everyone can enter and move around the whole park freely. Offer some equipment that is accessible and usable by all children regardless of their abilities or needs and provide a variation of play options to cater for a wide range of users, both on level of skills as on body size. Basic accessibility is one of the key elements of inclusion. Make sure the park, the playground site and the surrounding streets are fully accessible for wheelchairs and people with reduced mobility. This includes children, but also parents, grandparents or others.

  • At the playground entrance: avoid borders, kerbstones, steps, stairs,… Use ramps instead. Ramps should have a slope of maximum 1:16 (1 cm up for every 16 cm forward), should be wide enough for 2 people to pass and have hand-rails on both sides.
  • Avoid complicated gates or turnstiles. When you need to fence off a site, use kissing gates or other wheelchair friendly systems.
  • Provide tools for assistance, like handgrips or handlebars for support or guidance where there are steps or where users have to pass from one platform to the next.
  • Make sure the surface of the playground is accessible all the way around, so children can get around the complete playground on their own. Also equipment that is not 100% accessible should be at least reachable by wheelchair users, so they can get close to and participate in the activities from ground level. Remember that grass, sand or loose particle materials like wood-chips are not wheelchair accessible. When you want to include sandpits or grass surfaces in a design, surround them with more stable pathways.
  • Where this is necessary, use a type of safety surfacing that allows wheelchair users to move around easily; in case you like to use sand or other natural loose materials, make sure there is a secondary pathway in a wheelchair friendly material to reach all the play elements. Wheelchair pathways are specifically needed to reach those elements that are designed for wheelchair users, like a wheelchair carousel or special needs swing. Never place a wheel-chair friendly product in a sandpit. Wheelchair friendly surfacing materials are for example rubber-tiles or cork-based materials.
  • Children with reduced mobility also like to be in the middle of where the fun is. Make sure the central piece of the playground is at least partly accessible for children with reduced mobility. Where children may not be able to access a challenging climbing unit, ensure they can at least get close to it. If the highest peak cannot be reached by everyone, provide some way of interacting between different children on different levels. This can be for example a talking tube, a sand-lift or an innovative electronic multi-player game.
  • Play-towers should be at least partly accessible by wheelchairs, walkers or other mobility devises. Give children the possibility to ‘enter’ the tower in some way and provide some challenging activity inside or close to the tower. Play structures could be made partly accessible by means of long ramps. Ramps connecting play components shall have a slope not steeper than 1:16. The rise for any ramp connecting play components shall be maximum 305 mm before reaching a horizontal resting area.
  • Most children with reduced mobility are able to get out of their wheelchair and crawl around by themselves in some way using their arms or body. Play towers can thus be made accessible for example by using gradually inclining transfer steps or a series of transfer platforms that can be used for crawling. Transfer steps shall be minimum 355 mm deep and minimum 610 mm wide. Each transfer step shall be maximum 205 mm high. There should be at least 1 handrail. Also provide handgrips at the entrance of transfer steps to assist children when transferring from their wheelchair to the platform.
  • Take into account a variation in body size and weight of children with different skills or abilities. Some older/bigger children like to use simple equipment, like rockers or swings, that are generally build for younger users. Equipment can sometimes be attractive for younger as well as older children or even adults. When creating zones, don’t think only about younger and older children, but think about play intensity or play styles instead. This way you can make a zone, for example for quite play, that fits small and big children.
  • Make sure the equipment is accessible by adults, to assist children who need it or to interfere when something goes wrong. Most platforms or passages should be spacious enough for 2 people to pass, so a child with reduced mobility or vision can be assisted by a peer or adult.
  • When your playground is made of wood, steel, grey or black coloured materials, it can be hard for children with a visual impairment to use it, because all colours will be grey-ish and blurry. Mark exits, entrances and handgrips with contrasting colour-strips. This can be a ‘natural colour’ like yellow or green on a dark background or for example a ‘traffic-sign-blue’ on a grey or natural wood background.
  • Playgrounds that are build around steel-structures or wooden frames with climbing nets, can be difficult to visualy comprehend by children with a cognitive or visual impairment. When looking from a distance, such a playground can look chaotic and the different elements can be hard to distinguish. Try to make playgrounds visually comprehensible by providing depth-of-field in the 3-dimensional space. Flat horizontal play spaces are anyway boring and will be fuzzy to look at from a distance. Volumes provide depth and create structure in the visual space. This can for example be done by using closed surfaces in constructions, by creating hills on the terrain, by adding natural elements like boulders, trees or bushes, …

PLAY-VALUE: this is why playgrounds are fun

Playground equipment should be designed to have considerable play-value. The focus of designing playgrounds is on creating fun experiences for all children, taking into account the existing variation of needs and skills. Playing is doing! children should get the chance to direct their own play experience, also those children who have more limited skills. Make the playground challenging or engaging for children of different skill levels and watch out not to make it over-protected.

  • Create a variation in challenge! Some children like to stay on the safe side, others like to be challenged. It is OK to have equipment that requires more advanced skills, and thus that not everyone will be able to use. But there must be something for everyone! To enhance participation in play, you can create options for interaction between users on different levels of equipment.
  • By using the 3D-model of play, you’ll see that the various users of a playground have different physical and cognitive skills and have different socio-emotional needs. Based on this, you can create playing-zones on a playground. Some zones should be physically challenging and very active. Other zones should be more easy to use, more quite for children who like to stay out of the bustle or focused on individual use for children who like solitary activities.
  • Some parents and children like a safe and dedicated zone with a few specially designed toys that fit their abilities. These zones should anyway not be completely separated from the other equipment, to allow for interaction between users. Zones with a specific function (quite, active, …) can visually be separated, for example by using different accent colours on the equipment or in the surfacing around the equipment.
  • Create options for on-lookers. Before to dive into the hustle some children need a moment to observe what is going on. An on-looker space can be a bench close to the playground or a watchtower. Such a space can also be used by children to take a short break away from the hassle or by parents who like to stay close to the action.
  • Active zones should also be accessible for children with reduced mobility and wheelchairs. Also wheelchair bound children like to be involved in active and challenging activities. Some children prefer to stay in their wheelchair while moving around, some children are able to get out of their wheelchair and move around on their own, either using the equipment as support or by crawling on the platforms. In this case, it is good to provide some kind of wheelchair transfer zone between the rolling surface and the platforms.
  • Zones on a playground should not be completely separated by distance or physical barriers. It is possible to put them close together and create parting lines in a natural way, for example using natural elements like trees or bushes, by using different colours or different materials. For a full multi-generational approach, combine play opportunities for children, soft recreation for adults and hang-out spots for teenagers (f.e. benches, picnic-spots, sports equipment, …) in the same environment or visual style.


OPEN-ENDED DESIGN: open-up your imagination

Playground equipment should be designed in a way, so that there seems to be no wrong way of using it. Try to make playgrounds open-ended and allow for a wide range of possible forms of play. Include imaginative and sensory elements but don’t create a wholly specific thematic atmosphere. Equipment should be simple and intuitive to use. There should be room for error and no need for explanations or safety guidelines.

  • When you design equipment with a very specific function (like for example a slide), make sure it can be used and accessed in different ways. You can provide different entrance routes with various difficulty levels and you can also provide alternative exit routes. This way, a slide, will not just be a slide, but it will become a play tower with lots of options.
  • Try to make equipment simple in form, colour & decoration. Don’t overdo it with very flashy decorations or patterns. Make use of bright or contrasting colours only to accentuate certain elements like handgrips or exits for children and parents with reduced vision.
  • Inclusive design means that all children are welcome and can participate in the action in the same way. All products and equipment should therefore have the same visual appeal. Avoid stigmatising design of equipment that is designed especially for users with an impairment. Products should not look too technical or mechanical. Design equipment with simple functionality, in contrast to complex and expensive safety mechanisms.
  • Natural elements create a nice atmosphere and a visual cohesion on the playground. But natural elements also provide exciting opportunities for play. Simple hills, trees, boulders or bushes can be the best playgrounds, as long as you don’t forget to make the surfaces accessible for all.
  • Some children like very active physical play, others like more quite or solitary play. Children with reduced cognitive or socio-emotional abilities, often like simple sensory toys too. A truly inclusive playground makes space for sensory, explorative play equipment. To incorporate sensory play elements in your design, use visual, sound and tactile elements to create a playful effect. Musical instruments are a must have; but also tactile boards, or different HDPE play-panels can be an option.
  • A type of activity that is very well known in care homes for people with severe cognitive impairments are multi-sensory spaces or ‘snoozle-rooms’. To include this type of activities in a playground, create a silent, semi-closed space, equipped with visual stimuli (like coloured plastic windows), a soft surface to sit or lay down and maybe also some electronic sound or light equipment.

PARTICIPATION: invite everyone

The chance to participate in playing activities, together with children from outside of your small circle, is what makes public playgrounds special. Make sure all children can participate in the playground experience in a way that fits their needs. Offer products that cater for the whole range of social forms of play - from individual play to cooperative play, because individual play in a public setting is also a form of participation! Create safe spaces for on-looker-play or for children that like quietness. Make equipment accessible for adults to assist children, either to actively 'play along' or to help users in need.

  • When you want to stimulate participation, the most important thing to do, is to make sure your playgrounds are accessible, have considerable play value and are designed in an open-ended style. When those 3 boxes are checked, you are ready to start thinking about participation.
  • For all kinds of reasons, active participation is not easy to obtain. There is reluctance to come out and play together from all sides, there is social stress or stigmatisation. To achieve a form of participation, you will have to organise or stimulate it. This can be done top-down, for example managed by a local or city government; or bottom-up by a group of parents and children who take things in their own hands.
  • One idea is to support or set-up organisations that work with children with an impairment and their parents. For example, a play-club that gathers every weekend for an open play activity. As a group, children are less likely to be intimidated. So you can organise some form of transport, gather the children and hit those playgrounds all together.
  • Another idea is to hire an inclusive play coach or build an outreach team. Such a team or person, can work on a certain playground during busy summer days, to assist, stimulate or guide children in their play and specifically to stimulate children to play together. A coach can be a facilitator who builds bridges between children and parents, but can also be a companion who actively plays along.

About the authors:

Filip Gerits and Yves De Keuster are designers and researchers specialised in design and safety of activity toys and play infrastructure. For this topic we were happy to count on the indispensable support of a range of experts, children and parents with experience in the field of inclusive play. We especially like to thank Kathleen Op De Beeck - specialised in occupational therapy and inclusive education at AP – university college in Antwerp, Belgium – for her input and enthusiasm. We also thank the rest of the KBT development and sales teams for their valuable input and ideas. 

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