The community playground is that energizing space where kids come together to explore, socialize and have fun. For children with special needs, however, this common childhood experience can be limited by inaccessible equipment.
When Mara Kaplan’s son was born with severe disabilities, “I realized there were not many places for us to play,” Kaplan recalls. “And then when I had his little sister, there were definitely no places where all of us could play together.” That need led Kaplan and a group of other mothers in 1997 to found an indoor play space for children of varying physical and mental abilities. That in turn led to the creation of outdoor spaces and AccessiblePlayground.net, a resource for those looking to build a playground in their community, or simply looking to play.
Kaplan differentiates between an “accessible playground,” which denotes a space where wheelchairs can enter and equipment is accessible, and an “inclusive playground,” which can mean much more. “An inclusive playground creates an atmosphere where not only can children access equipment, but they can engage with other children,” Kaplan explains. “Everything is carefully laid out so that there is wide space between equipment, and like equipment is placed together—a hard climber and an easy climber together. So you get to climb right next to your peers.”
The best thing about inclusive playgrounds is that the entire family can play together. “We are designing to make it fun and challenging for all children, including typically developing children,” Kaplan says. The carefully designed spaces feature a variety of equipment—not just climbers and slides, but spinning and swinging apparatus as well—along with sensory materials such as musical instruments or a water play area to provide different tactile experiences. Equally important are “cozy quiet places for children who get overwhelmed,” Kaplan adds.
A new community-edited guide created by National Public Radio lists more than 1,500 accessible playgrounds in the U.S. Kaplan helped contribute to that list, and also helped developed the Inclusive Play Design Guide, a nearly 70-page document providing detailed insight into the process of creating an inclusive playground. Produced by Playworld Systems, manufacturer of progressive playground equipment, the guide is available as a free download.