Focus: Playgrounds of inclusion

By Sruthi Atmakur

When children play, they are learning – developing the capacities of their bodies, exploring the material world around them and navigating the complexities of social interaction. Play contributes to children’s physical, cognitive, emotional and social development, and participation in play is enshrined as a right of all children in article 31 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. 

For children with disabilities – who reap developmental benefits from play just as much as other children, and whose right to equal access to participation in play is guaranteed by the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities – the fulfilment of the right to play is often thwarted as a result of both physical barriers and social exclusion. Most often, the spaces and structures set up for children’s play are not accessible to children with disabilities. The resulting lack of interaction between children with and without disabilities, in turn, reinforces the attitudinal barriers that relegate persons with disabilities to society’s margins.

To make equal access to participation in play for children with disabilities a reality, inclusive play spaces draw upon the principles of universal design, which prompt designers of equipment and facilities to take into account the wide range of human physical and psychological abilities, so as to ensure equitable use by all people and obviate the need for additional, often costly, adaptations. In addition to ensuring physical accessibility and catering to children’s diverse needs and preferences, inclusive playgrounds are also designed to foster social inclusion by providing spaces and activities that create opportunities for interaction between children of varying abilities as well as their families and communities.

While all play spaces should include equipment that physically and cognitively challenges children with a range of abilities, access to the space and equipment usage should not itself cause any child fatigue. Designers of inclusive playgrounds have therefore provided wide, smooth pathways and ramps to allow children using wheelchairs and other assistive devices to manoeuvre freely and safely; grab bars, padded edges and rubber floors like the one at Bradley’s Fun for All Playground in Pleasant Garden, North Carolina, United States, help children move about and minimize their risk of hurting themselves if they lose their balance or fall.

Designers of inclusive play equipment have come up with a variety of ingenious and cost-effective solutions to make the equipment usable and enjoyable for children with varying abilities. At Coles Park in Bangalore, India – which is run by Kilikili, an organization formed by parents of children with disabilities – a ‘family swing’ permits children to swing together with their caregivers or peers, multilevel hoops allow for games between children of different ages and abilities, while a raised sandpit makes it possible – as a sunken one would not – for children in wheelchairs to play alongside their peers. Children with sensory impairments can benefit from equipment and features that engage a variety of senses, such as fragrant gardens or variously textured surfaces that are fun to touch. Kilikili’s Gayatri Devi Park in Bangalore includes a ramp that makes sounds as children hop, run or step on its surface; while this is particularly enriching for children with visual impairments, it can be enjoyed by all children.

Features such as sandpits, water tables, mazes, basketball courts and gardens provide a context for children to play together. Meanwhile, children who may become overwhelmed in a large group or dislike loud noises – for instance, some children with autism – as well as those who simply prefer to engage with their environment in solitude, can retreat to shelters to play by themselves, without being cut off from the larger social setting.

Inclusive play spaces further the mission of promoting social inclusion of children with disabilities by hosting activities and programmes that bring together children with and without disabilities and also involve their families and members of the surrounding community. Kilikili’s parks, for example, periodically hold a ‘Family Day’, while Friendship Park in Ra’anana, Israel, organizes structured play activities on specific days of the week, and also offers social programmes and workshops to raise community awareness of issues affecting persons with disabilities and promoting a more inclusive society.

The impetus for inclusive play spaces arises out of the recognition that children with disabilities in a given community lack places to play. To start the process, active community members establish not-for-profit organizations – such as United States-based Shane’s Inspiration and Unlimited Play, both of which were founded by parents of children with disabilities. These organizations then work to secure funding and collaborate with other community groups and the appropriate government agencies to realize the project. The creation of an inclusive play space requires collaboration among a variety of stakeholders, including architects, landscape designers, urban planners, local government, academic researchers, child health-care professionals, horticultural specialists, educators and parent groups. Organizers should also consult children of varying abilities, as the design must reflect their needs and desires – for the success of an inclusive play space ultimately depends on its use by children in the surrounding community.

Efforts to establish play spaces that accommodate all children face two main challenges: mustering the resources to design, build, staff and maintain the playground, and contending with discriminatory and dismissive attitudes towards children with disabilities. By reconceiving accessibility in terms not of making adaptations for special needs, but rather building to cater to the broad spectrum of human needs from the beginning, universal design has shown that accommodating persons with disabilities need not entail additional costs. In many cases, however, these projects are hindered by a lack of awareness of children with disabilities and their needs and, more generally, of the importance of play for all children, with and without disabilities.

Inclusive play benefits all children, regardless of ability: It helps them develop a true and nuanced understanding of the world, to appreciate the differences between people and recognize the similarities that underlie them, to be tolerant of diversity and to accept others’ perspectives. By giving children with and without disabilities a chance to play together, inclusive play spaces can serve as joyful incubators of a more inclusive society, in which children with disabilities can participate equally and enjoy equal opportunities to flourish.

Infographic: Universal Design in the Playground


Cooper, D.M., ‘Exercise, Stress, and Inflammation in the Growing Child: From the bench to the playground’, Current Opinion in Pediatrics, vol. 16, no. 3, 2004, pp. 286–292.; and Frost, J.L., P.S. Brown,, J.A. Sutterby and C.D. Thornton. ‘The Developmental Benefits of Playgrounds’, Association for Childhood Education International, Olney, Md, 2004.

Casey, Theresa, Inclusive Play: Practical strategies for working with children aged 3 to 8, Paul Chapman, London, 2005.

Center for Universal Design, ‘Universal Design Principles’, <>, accessed 15 May 2012.

Kilikili, ‘Who We Are’, <>, accessed 12 April 2013.

Sahlin, Erik, ‘Friendship Park: A playground for children with disabilities’, Israel, <>, accessed 13 March 2012.

Shane’s Inspiration, California, <>, accessed 13 March 2012.

Unlimited Play, Missouri, <>, accessed 13 March 2012.

Regarding the ways in which children with disabilities use playgrounds and experience play, see: Prellwitz, M. and L. Skär, ‘Usability of Playgrounds for Children with Different Abilities’, Occupational Therapy International, vol. 14, no. 3, 2007, pp. 144–155; and Casey, T. and N. Coates, ‘Out to Play: A consultation with children with disabilities, parents and carers on outdoor play areas in Edinburgh’, The Yard, Edinburgh, 2004.

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