A Case Study of Playground Accessibility

August 1, 2012, Department, by Kenneth Hurst

Of the seven playgrounds observed this spring in College Station, Texas, the accessible Independence Playground was the most used.The last 20 years in the playground industry have seen the introduction of numerous playground safety and accessibility regulations. With the advent of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, the Access Board’s playground accessibility rules of 2000, and the latest Department of Justice Standards published in 2010, accessibility has been at the forefront of recreation facility and playground development. Designers have consistently advocated the value of highly accessible facilities, but there is often considerable cost involved in adding ramps and the additional square footage of surfacing needed. The question often posed is: How can the cost of these special-use facilities be substantiated? A designer’s experience and intuition, having seen the popularity of these playgrounds, is commonly the primary avenue of support.

The challenge in this era of evidence-based design is to support a designer’s judgment with empirical evidence. The hypothesis tested for this article is that playgrounds designed to high universal accessible design standards, going beyond the minimum requirements of ADA, are more attractive to children of all abilities and are highly attractive to the general population of users, perhaps even more so than play environments designed to the minimum standard accessibility requirements.  

An informal study to address a designer’s curiosity was undertaken this spring in a quiet North Texas town. The setting is an older, medium population, nicely developed, largely bedroom suburban community that is generally well maintained. The city’s residents have high expectations for their community services and parks. As a result, the department of parks and recreation has responded by providing a high level of quality development, and it goes to great lengths in the maintenance of all its facilities. The parks all have a close relationship to the neighboring residences, are all in nice naturalized settings with abundant shade provided by old growth trees, and have an abundance of other natural amenities. This presents a unique opportunity to study playground use while holding a number of other variables in the equation at relatively similar levels.  

Seven parks in the city have playgrounds, all within two or three miles of each other. All of the playgrounds were built by the same manufacturer and six of the seven designed by the same designer. The most noticeable difference among the facilities is that the playground at Independence Park was designed with a high level of universal accessibility, having nearly complete ramp accessibility to the elevated playground components. The surfacing at Independence Park is a unitary poured-in-place surface which is also found at one of the other playgrounds. The remaining five have engineered wood fiber as the surfacing. Interestingly, the counts of playground components are similar, in the mid 30s, at two of the other playgrounds in the system. Although ramps are used at Independence Park, other transfer elements that accommodate individuals with disabilities may work better for other playgrounds and still meet the ADA and the DOJ standards.  

With permission of the parks and recreation department, during the week of March 12th, user counts were conducted at each of the playgrounds. Each location was visited in the same sequence within an hour’s time of each other, on a six-mile circuit. Six counts were made recording the number of children on the playgrounds. The weather was comfortably moderate and similar during the entire week, being overcast and between 68 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit throughout. In an attempt to equalize the size of the play areas, user counts were divided by the number of play events to arrive at a number of children per play event. It is interesting to note that the number of children per play event was recorded to be significantly greater at Independence Park in comparison with any of the other parks.  

Admittedly, this has been a small, informal study, based on a designer’s intuition that play environments designed to the highest levels of universal accessibility have a high universal attractiveness to the general public. It was undertaken over a short period of time, applying some basic principles of research design. While this was a small data set without extensive controls or statistical analysis, and restricted by available time, the short time period also limited the number of distracting variables that could legitimately be encountered during an extended data collection period. The user survey data returned significantly more children per play event at Independence Park than any of the other parks in the system.  

In conclusion, the user counts appear to support and give credibility to the designer’s intuition and hypothesis that universally accessible playgrounds are of high value and can be more attractive to everyone regardless of their abilities. In light of the generally increased cost of these facilities, the data also appears to support the increased expense of building play environments designed with the highest levels of ramp accessibility. Further study of the issue is certainly warranted, but it is clear with this study that play environments designed using the highest levels of universal accessibility are not limited to those living with disabilities and have universal attractiveness to the general population.  

Kenneth Hurst graduated in 1980 from Iowa State University with a degree in landscape architecture and has spent his career largely in parks and recreation with the last 20 years focusing on play environments. He has recently been accepted into the Department of Landscape Architecture at Texas A&M University where he will begin work this fall semester on a Ph.D. degree in urban and regional sciences.