Creating inclusive play spaces
In creating play spaces for inclusive play, it’s important to take into account a wide range of ages as well as abilities. Most playgrounds are designed for younger children and become boring after age 5 or so. One Sunday afternoon, Penny Wilson and I walked through New York’s Lower East Side looking at playgrounds, most of which were empty. But the sounds of play captured us and we tracked them down to a small, crowded playground teeming with multi-generational play. Near the gate sat elderly women on benches conversing with each other. In another area were tables for chess and checkers, and they were filled with elderly men at play. Nearby was a small basketball court with one hoop, where young men and some children were playing. At the far end was playground equipment, and parents and young children were clustered there.
It was a rich environment, but I couldn't help thinking that a playworker and loose parts would have diversified the play even more. Loose parts can be natural materials like logs, stones, sand, water, bamboo poles, etc., or they can be simple objects, such as ropes and cloths. Children especially love items cast off by adults. I once watched a group of children happily playing with a discarded Venetian blind. They incorporated it into their houses, and one child slipped it on as armor. With fabric and other props on hand, children build structures for themselves, dress up, and evolve elaborate play scenarios. This is very appealing to elementary-age children as well as young children and broadens the usage of a play space. It also allows children with disabilities to enter into play in ways that are sometimes difficult when the major equipment requires climbing, swing, sliding, and the like.
I find that European playground equipment is generally more adventuresome than that used in the U.S., in part because of different regulations, and in part because of fear of lawsuits in this country. But some of the European designs can be adapted to meet U.S. regulations. In general, children want adventure and risk in their play and grow bored with playgrounds that don't offer it. As a result, one rarely sees elementary-aged children playing on public playgrounds. Exceptions are the adventure playgrounds on the West Coast, which are filled with elementary-age children.
When designing inclusive play spaces, it is important not only to select accessible equipment, but equipment that encourages social play and that appeals to children of different ages. For example, many playgrounds will have a single play house where a few children at a time can play, but a more social design involves two or three play houses clustered together. They can be on ground level, but since children love to play high, they can be raised up and joined by boardwalks and ramps that are made fully accessible. (12)
To address children's nature deprivation, there is growing interest in again including sand, water, and mud in playgrounds. By elevating some of the containers, they become accessible to children (and parents) in wheelchairs or using mobility devices. The grouping of the troughs for water and sand places all the children in proximity to one another and encourages social play. By elevating the troughs at different levels, children of different ages and abilities can play together. At the same time, it is good if one of the sand troughs or a sand pit on the ground is deep and allows for tunneling in the sand. As children grow older, they like to dig in deep sand. Also, having access to water for sand play is a great help, but a pump for water is more ecological than constant running water.
Climbing equipment can also be built in such a way that young children or those with limited movement can remain on the ground or at low levels, while still being part of the overall play. United Play shows a fascinating structure made of logs that rise at about a 40-degree angle with the tall ends rising about 8 or 10 feet from the ground. The logs have spaces in between and climbing nets underneath. There is a whole world under the climbing structure which children will also find attractive for building houses and forts. Here, they can have a quieter world while still being part of an active play situation.
Another favorite play activity is swinging, but, generally, swings are lined up next to each other, encouraging parallel play, but not social play. As children, we sat sideways on our wooden swings and coordinated our swinging (or crashed into each other), but modern swings do not allow for such social play. When swings are hung in a circle, however, children face each other as they swing and can even touch feet if they are able. Swings of different styles can be included to enable very young children or those with disabilities to swing with others.
Another form of swing that is very helpful for children with some disabilities is a basket swing. This is a circular swing like a donut with a net in the center. Children who have difficulty supporting themselves upright can recline in the swing, and because it is big enough for several children, they can be part of a group swinging experience.
I can't resist adding a word about mud play. A few years ago, it was almost unheard of to let children play in the mud, and it is still a problem for some parents and other adults who are especially tidy-minded. But increasingly, one hears of mud festivals or other special mud events. To accommodate all children, one can have a variety of settings for mud play. Some can be elevated and are good for creating mud cafes where mud pies and other delectable items are made. Or a "wallow" can be dug out and flooded to create mud. An Alaska park district created a mud day for children of all ages, and it was a great hit. At the end of the day, the parents begged for a mud evening so they could come without their children to play in the mud. And why not? It’s cheaper than a spa.
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