How Inclusive Is Your Playground?

August 24, 2023, Department, by Jonathan White, AIA, NCARB, and Danise Levine, AIA, CAPS

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New playgrounds often are promoted as inclusive, but how inclusive are they, really? What is the difference between accessible playgrounds meeting minimum legal requirements and inclusive playgrounds? Let’s explore this difference using a case study of the Motion Junction playground in Canandaigua, New York.

Minimum Requirements for Accessible Playgrounds

Accessible playgrounds comply with sections §240 and §1008 of the 2010 Americans with Disabilities Act Standards. The standards require 50 percent of elevated play components to be on an accessible route, which can include a transfer system (§1008.3) instead of a ramp, in some cases (§1008.2.1). If there are no elevated components, one of each type of ground-level components must be on an accessible route. The number increases as elevated components are introduced. For example, one accessible ground-level component is required if there are two to four elevated components, but eight (of four unique types) are required if there are 23 to 25 elevated components (table Accessible components must be dispersed throughout the play area and comply with §1008.4.

Notable design criteria include (see §1008 for all criteria):

  • 60-inch minimum ground-level accessible route width
  • 1:16 maximum ramp slope
  • 12-inch maximum rise per ramp run
  • Handrail, seating and play-table dimensions that accommodate size differences between children and adults

Features of Inclusive Playgrounds

Everyone Can Play is an inclusive playground guidebook developed by New South Wales (Australia) government. It asks three questions: (1) Can I get there?, (2) Can I play? and (3) Can I stay? The latter question addresses the need for restrooms, drinking water, seating and shade. The National Study of Playgrounds by Studio Ludo found playgrounds with restrooms have 44 percent more users. Playgrounds with mature trees have double the number of users. Such features make playgrounds more enjoyable for everyone. While minimum regulations require access if these features are provided, an inclusive playground provides them. Everyone Can Play also provides six principles for inclusive playgrounds, all embodied at Motion Junction:

  • Find – Communicate the purpose and location of play elements and facilities. Motion Junction uses a multisensory map, color-contrasting central pathway, wayfinding system and signs with pictograms.
  • Fit – Provide a range of play opportunities for people of all abilities and sizes. Motion Junction provides opportunities for users of different age groups and abilities, such as swings with traditional seats, two attached seats, child-safety restraint seats, a tire and mesh net.
  • Choose – Enable exciting individual experiences and social interaction. Motion Junction has visual and auditory-play components and communication boards with images and symbols that allow visual communication.
  • Join – Create opportunities for everyone to connect. Motion Junction uses a smiley face on the ground and “buddy bench” to help children find and meet new friends.
  • Thrive – Challenge and involve people of all capabilities. Motion Junction has a mindfulness path that uses illustrations to encourage engagement in activities along the way (e.g., yoga, meditation, guided imagery and positive affirmation).
  • Belong – Create a place that is welcoming and comfortable. Motion Junction has a covered pavilion with seating, charging stations, an adult-sized changing table and four family restrooms, each with accessible adult- and child-sized toilets and lavatories.

Jonathan White, AIA, NCARB, is Director of Design Consulting at the University at Buffalo, Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access. Danise Levine, AIA, CAPS, is Assistant Director of the University at Buffalo, Center for Inclusive Design and Environmental Access.