Universal Design Makes Playgrounds Inclusive of Disabilities

For parents like Laurie Schulze, the playground is not often a place associated with fun and happy memories. Her daughter, Leah, has spina bifida and was unable to enjoy the majority of the playground equipment that was designed without kids in wheelchairs in mind. But all of that changed on a beautiful sunny day in Westerville, Ohio, when Laurie and Leah found an inclusive playground.

“It was very emotional because it wasn’t just Leah playing,” Schulze said. “There were other children with disabilities with their families. Just to see her jumping in and participating was so great. Words can’t describe how wonderful that felt.”

The playground at Millstone Creek Park is one of about 100 inclusive playgrounds in the United States, and was built with the intention of allowing children of all ages and learning levels, including those with disabilities, to enjoy the benefits of play.

“Everything melted together and it was just amazing to see everyone playing together,” Schulze said. “There were happy smiling faces everywhere. It was wonderful chaos.”

Universally Accessible Playground for Kids with Disabilities

The Importance of Inclusive Playgrounds

Inclusive playgrounds address the needs of all children, including those with autism, hearing impairments, cerebral palsy, spina bifida and other challenges, according to information in a recent report titled Inclusive Play Design Guide from Playworld Systems, a leading playground equipment manufacturer.

“From birth until death, play is a vital part of human development,” said JC Boushh, a Design for Play expert. “For children, especially, play is how they come to understand the world around them. Play provides those things that you can’t get anywhere else.”

According Mara Kaplan, lead expert for Let Kids Play and mother of a child with disabilities, play can even help mitigate stereotypes and biases that many adults and children have about children with disabilities.

“A typically developing child who’s never seen a child with a disability will just start playing with them because they haven’t been told that person is different or weird or strange,” she said.

While the Americans with Disabilities Act does have established guidelines for specifications on playgrounds, the guidelines don’t promise a fun playground that is inclusive for all kids. The guidelines and standards aren’t always followed, and the ADA just updated the guidelines with better design practices for playgrounds.

“The requirements are now much better defined and much more enforceable,” Boushh said. “We came up with the idea of an inclusive playground, but no one really defined it. Only now are people starting to really understand what inclusion is.”

“Most kids with disabilities have been outside the scope of play,” he added. “There was nothing for them to do once they got to the playground. Now, the idea is to design playgrounds that are inclusive not just for mobility impairments but also for cognitive and sensory disabilities.”

The Inclusive Play Design Guide helps playground designers better understand what kids need, and defines inclusion so that effective playgrounds can be built and managed. A range of experts, from landscape architects to parents of children with disabilities, were consulted before the Inclusive Play Design Guide was written.

Universal Design Accessible Playground Equipment

The Cost of Inclusive Playgrounds

The cost of building a normal playground is estimated to be around $100,000. The cost to build an inclusive playground is between $500,000 and $1 million. The playground at Millstone Creek Park was largely funded by community fundraising and the effort of parents like Laurie Schultz.

“The majority, about 75 percent of the funding, comes from outside sources,” Boushh said. “Most are funded by grants and fundraisers.

“There is often money from the city, park district, or school,” Kaplan said. “People fund-raise and raise money the way they always have. There is also a lot of support from local foundations and businesses because the playgrounds are built for the community and their needs.”

Experts agree the playgrounds are worth every penny.

“I hope there will be more in the future and that people will make conscious decisions on how to design these playgrounds,” Kaplan said. “It’s no fun to sit on the sidelines and watch siblings and friends play.”

“I am encouraged that I see more of these parks coming,” Schulze said. “Millstone is just amazing because everyone can play together. Every time I drive by it makes me smile.”