Practical guidelines for building inclusive playgrounds

The chance to meet and participate in play activities together is what makes public playgrounds so special. Ensure that all children can participate in the playground experience in a way that fits their abilities and fulfils their needs.  

Support social play in all its forms

  • Create options for all the social forms of play. Some children prefer to keep to themselves, others prefer to play together.
  • Create options for onlookers. Before they throw themselves into the hustle and bustle, some children need some time to observe. This can be done, for example, from a bench or an observation tower near the playground. This space can also be used when children need a break or by carers who like to stay nearby.
  • Depending on its potential users, a playground must be large enough to accommodate a sufficient number of children and to provide space for children who need physical separation. In addition, a playground must be equipped with resting areas. These may be part of a play facility or may be located slightly outside the play area.

Emotional safety

  • Some children are easily over-stimulated. Those children can benefit from areas that reduce stimuli, for example in the form of small cocoon-like semi-enclosed spaces furnished with soft stimuli. Make sure that these are wheelchair accessible.
  • Some children need (physical or emotional) support from an adult. Make sure that they too have access to the playground and/or near the equipment. This can simply be a bench next to the playground.
  • Children who have difficulties with verbal communication can benefit from a communication board with a graphic representation of the playground and its different parts. In addition, a board like that can contain a series of pictograms with different emotions and actions that children can point at to express themselves.

Social context of playgrounds

  • For all kinds of reasons, active participation between children on a playground is not easy to obtain. To achieve a form of participation, it has to be actively organised and stimulated. This can be done top-down (by a local or regional authority) or bottom-up (by a group of parents and children taking matters into their own hands).
  • One option is to start up and support youth organisations that work with children with disabilities and their parents. This could be, for example, a club that meets every weekend for an open play activity in a playground. A club can organise transport, gather the children and go to playgrounds as a group. If children move in groups, they are less likely to feel intimidated. It doesn't have to be big or complicated. Four or five children with a van and a supervisor is a good start. 
  • Another idea is to bring in outreach coaches for inclusive play. These coaches can work in playgrounds during busy summer days to help, stimulate or guide children. They can be facilitators who build bridges between different children and parents. Coaches can be professionals or volunteers and they can be directed and supported by a local or regional authority. 

Participation in the design process

Nothing about us without us

  • An important first step in designing a playground is to get in touch with its possible future users. How many children live in the neighbourhood? What are their wishes and desires? Are there children with special needs? Are there schools or organisations in the neighbourhood? An inclusive participatory approach provides the best insights.
  • Meaningful participation and co-creation imply that playground users have the opportunity to express their ideas, show their capabilities and influence decision-making. This can be applied in different forms and at different levels of involvement and often creates new perspectives. Children can express their own needs and wishes. If they cannot use language to do so, simple interaction and observation while playing can also reveal much about their skills and preferences.
  • For any kind of design process, and specifically for urban design, it is important to consider the people who will eventually use the space or infrastructure. Address potential problems proactively by using a participatory approach.
  • Users are not always verbal in expressing their wishes or problems. It is difficult for many people to indicate exactly why something does or doesn’t work for them. That’s why it is so important to listen carefully and without prejudice or observation.

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.

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