Play for All – Accessible Play Areas

During my undergraduate degree I was given the opportunity to choose any topic I liked to study for my dissertation. I researched a few different topics, but ultimately there was one area in which I am passionate about. Play. In particular accessible play, or play for all. The passion for improving the lives of both adults and children with disabilities first arose when I worked two different Special Educational Needs (SEN) Schools in Chelmsford. There was a particular focus on getting the children to play outside and promoting interaction between the pupils. It is a well document fact that social skills are developed through interaction, and play is a positive and effective way to increase this knowledge.

Disability Discrimination Act:

The Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) was first established in 1996 but was fully enforced in October 2004, it states that provisions had to be made to allow for equal opportunities for people with disabilities. The act means that it is now illegal for any disabled person to be treated in an inferior manor to those who are non-disabled. It is important to mention that the act does not mean that all play areas must be accessible, but they should take measures to ensure it is suitable for the use of disabled children. In 2004 I was 10 and too young to understand or in fact know anything about the DDA. However I vividly remember seeing new, larger swings that looked like car-seats complete with safety straps pop up in many of the play areas I was visiting as a child.

Why is play so important?

I think in today’s society the act of play is taken for granted. Play teaches children what risks are acceptable and what risks are not – ok there are bumps and bruises along the way but they have learnt something. Play encourages the vital skills and knowledge needed for a child’s physical and emotional development. It doesn’t matter what ability or disability you may have, you the right to be able to develop these skills. It is sad to say that there are a number of children with disabilities who are not able to develop these skills in a playground the way a non-disabled child is able to. Playgrounds should be promoting interaction between all children and not creating a segregated way of playing. It should not be forgotten that the rate children develop at is never the same, everyone develops at different stages. Just because some children sadly may never develop to maturity it doesn’t mean that they are not entitled to the same opportunities as everyone else. As difficult as it may be for non-disabled children to understand why a disabled child may not be able to do certain activities, it is heart-warming to see that they will always try and find a way to include everyone. Just think of how many videos have gone viral in 2016 of school races where groups of non-disabled children would hold back and encourage a child with a disability. Now why do many play areas not promote accessibility and inclusion?

What is inclusion in play or accessible play?

Inclusive play does not mean that the play area has to be mundane or boring; it purely means that you have to consider elements for all abilities. A child with a severe disability still has some level of ability, they are still able to experience fun, risk and play just as much as a child who is not disabled. It is wrong to assume that a child with a disability needs protecting from perceived risks more than children without disabilities.

How do you make a play area accessible?

Play areas should cater for all abilities and disabilities. As designers we should not forget that there are all shapes and forms of ability and disability, including learning, emotional and behavioural difficulties, visual and audible impairments, as well as mental and physical disabilities. It should also be remembered that a person can have more than one disability. Due to the large variety of disabilities it is near impossible to design a play area which caters for all abilities and that is fully inclusive. It is important for a child’s self-esteem not to make it obvious that a piece of equipment has been designed specifically for inclusive purposes, the child does not want to stand out as being ‘different’.

What makes a play area and makes it accessible?

ROSPA have identified 10 basic types of activities for child’s play. These are;

  • Swinging
  • Rocking
  • Rotating
  • Climbing / Crawling
  • Balancing
  • Sliding
  • Pretending / Role Playing
  • Training
  • Experimenting
  • Gathering
The above activities are aimed to be included in all play areas, children will naturally experiment with different ways to find a solution to a perceived problem, just as much as they will use role playing in play without many prompts from supervising adults, naturally training and gathering will be a part of this role playing. It is the other items listed that designers should be building into the play areas. It is not always possible to include all of these 10 activities, or to make all 10 fully accessible to all levels. From my point of view accessible design is about creating an environment which aims to design out segregation in play areas and creating a play area that challenges every level of ability. For the most severe disabilities sensory points around the play area may be the most inclusive way of allowing the children to interact.

Hylands Park in Chelmsford is a great example of how a non-inclusive play area has recently been converted into a highly inclusive play area. Wide, long ramps allow for wheelchair users to access high points they might not have been able to access previously. It creates that sense of fear and risk which would have been harder for them to experience. Having seen this play area in use a number of times it is very effective and fully inclusive, able-bodied children race round the ramp system, stopping at sensory points to explore how they work. For more detail see here:

From my point of view accessible design is about creating an environment which aims to design out segregation in play areas and creating a play area that challenges every level of ability.

LLA have worked on a number of accessible play areas. This is a plan of a recent play area we have worked on.