Practical guidelines for building inclusive playgrounds

Play equipment is best designed without there appearing to be a specific way of using it. Make playgrounds open-ended and thus create a wide range of possible forms of play. Equipment should be simple and intuitive to use. There should be tolerance for 'alternative use' and no need for explanation or safety guidelines. 

Diversify functions and ways of use

  • Open-ended means that the function of equipment is not completely predetermined. There is no beginning or end to a game. Children are often inclined to use equipment in alternative ways. Equipment can be designed in such a way that its function is indefinite or that you can use it in different ways. For example, a roof can also function as a slope or a slide.  
  • When you design equipment, make sure it can be accessed in different ways. You can provide various access and exit routes with various levels of difficulty. This way, a simple tower with a slide turns into a play tower with many possibilities.
  • Design infrastructure and places that can change over time. This can happen naturally as plants and trees grow and change or are just pruned again, but it can also be done constructively by building equipment where modules can be added or parts can be replaced or swapped. Places that can be manipulated by children themselves can also be very challenging. 
  • Some children like simple, practical and well-known activities that do not involve a lot of imagination, cognitive activity or problem-solving. For them, it is fun to build in some classic playground equipment. Others prefer to fantasise and find a 'metaphorical sandbox' more appealing.

Visual design

  • Try to keep the equipment simple in form, colour and decoration. Do not overdo it with decorations or patterns. Use complementary colour contrasts only to accentuate certain elements, such as handles or exits for people with impaired vision. Use a softer contrast (different shades of the same colour or similar colours) for the overall design.
  • Inclusive design means all children are welcome and can participate in the action in the same way. Therefore, all equipment should have the same visual appeal. Avoid stigmatising the design of products specifically designed for users with disabilities. Design devices with simple functionality as opposed to devices with complex and expensive safety mechanisms.

Sensory experiences

  • Sensory experiences are interesting to all children. A playground does not have to focus solely on movement or motor play. Other senses can create interesting play opportunities as well. For example, you can stimulate the sense of touch by using touch panels with different textures, hardness or temperatures.
  • Natural elements create a nice atmosphere and a visual cohesion, but they also provide exciting play opportunities. Simple hills, trees, boulders or bushes can be the best playgrounds. Create height differences, lookout points, excavated wells, elements to play hide-and-seek, crawl under or sit behind. Tunnels, playhouses or a low-hanging tree canopy offer many possibilities, as long as they are accessible to everyone.
  • Loose natural elements such as acorns, sand or pebbles offer excellent opportunities for fantasy and constructive play. Make sure the elements are accessible to everyone by laying paths between trees and providing play tables at the right height.

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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