Designing for Inclusive Play: Applying the Principles of Universal Design to the Playground


Jennifer K. Skulski, CPSI

The public playground is, by far, one of the most important settings for child development. It is one of the few environments where a child has the freedom to run and jump, climb, swing and leap, yell, reign, conjure, create, dream, or meditate. In our complicated world, the playground is a safe place for children to come together, to discover the value of play, to learn about each other, to recognize their similarities and differences, to meet physical and social challenges, to leave comfort zones, and evolve into the young people they are meant to be. It is a microcosm for life lessons, from challenge and risk to conflict resolution and cooperation. When we design for these purposes and apply the Principles of Universal Design, we design for inclusive play where every child, regardless of ability or disability, is welcomed and benefits physically, developmentally, emotionally, and socially from the environment.

Unfortunately, since the release of the accessibility guidelines for play areas in 2000, the task of designing accessible playgrounds has become a numbers game. Count:

  • How many ground-level play activities?
  • How many accessible ground-level play activities?
  • How many elevated play activities?
  • How many elevated play activities are accessible by transfer systems?
  • How many elevated play activities are accessible by ramp?
  • Do we have to have a ramp? That costs more!
  • Let's just take away a couple of activities!
  • Whew, we only need to have a transfer step now!
Design creativity has been ousted and replaced by confusion and complacency in the quest to meet the minimum accessibility guidelines. Herein lies the problem. When the planning team only seeks to meet the minimum requirements, play value is ignored and our children lose out in the process. Designing fun and creative playscapes that are accessible to children with disabilities does not need to be a numbers game. If we apply the Principles of Universal Design, using a human-centered design approach, we can create environments with play value that benefit children of all abilities.

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