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10 Ways to Make Your Playground Inclusive

When planning a playground, some people take the stance that “you can’t please everyone.” With a number of constraints, such as budget and site size, it can be hard to accommodate every single person. However, regardless of your situation, there are several key decisions you can make to design a more inclusive playground. In this guide, we’ll go over the most important ones.

For example, just choosing the right surfacing can open up a world of possibilities. It’s the small choices like these that can have drastic effects on your playground’s accessibility. So, it’s crucial not to overlook any one aspect of your park’s design. For some kids, these decisions can be the difference between playing and not playing.

When it comes to inclusion, most people think of children in wheelchairs and mobility devices. While providing accessibility to these individuals is important, it’s not the only thing to consider. What about kids with developmental disabilities, such as autism? Or older age groups who may visit your playground, like parents and caretakers? These are all questions we’ll dive into.

Group of children riding an Alta Glide at the Karns Lions Club inclusive playground in Knoxville, TN.

How to Design an Inclusive Playground

1. Choose the Right Surfacing

Safety surfacing lays the groundwork for your playground. It’s the first thing that kids will touch when they visit your park. Therefore, choosing the right surfacing has a huge impact on your park’s accessibility. No matter how inclusive the rest of your playground is, the wrong choice of surfacing can make these elements inaccessible.

When designing an inclusive playground, it’s best to use unitary surfacing. This includes poured-in-place rubber, rubber tiles, or artificial turf. While engineered wood fiber and rubber crumb meet the minimum ADA requirements, they are difficult to push a wheelchair through. Additionally, children with developmental delays may explore loose fill surfacing with their hands and mouth, posing a risk to their safety.

Two children playing with the inclusive activity panels at Saluda Shoals Park in Seven Oaks, SC.
Child in a wheelchair riding on the inclusive PIP rubber surfacing at Saluda Shoals Park in Seven Oaks, SC.

2. Create Gathering Places

Among a playground’s many benefits, social development is near the top of the list. So, it’s essential to create gathering places where kids can learn cooperation and empathy. One of the best ways to do this is through activity panels. These affordable events encourage teamwork and can be placed at the ground level for easy access. In particular, our Unlimited Play panels feature bright colours, fun games, and motion play.

But, creating gathering places isn’t just for kids. A truly inclusive playground also considers parents and caretakers, who will be supervising their child’s play. Placing a handful of benches around the park ensures that adults have a relaxing place to socialize. In addition, picnic tables are a great way to promote outdoor meals – and encourage longer playground visits!

Children sitting on a Perforated Steel Bench at the Foust Elementary School playground in Owensboro, KY.

3. Incorporate a Theme

One of the primary reasons kids visit a playground is to make new friends. However, for children who struggle with anxiety, this can be a daunting task. Designing your playground around a theme can be a great icebreaker for kids to meet one another. They can engage in meaningful pretend play and assign new roles to objects, actions, and ideas.

Whether it’s a rocket ship park or dinosaur playground, the possibilities for design are truly endless. Themed playgrounds can also create significant community interest by incorporating local history and culture into the design. Just be careful not to overdo it. Kids should still be able to guide their own play and make individual decisions.

Nautical themed playground at Kay Everson Park in Valley Stream, NY.
Group of children climbing the train themed playground at Mega 10 Park in Marshalltown, IA.

4. Quiet Play Spaces

Playgrounds are filled with hundreds of sights and sounds, which can be very overwhelming. With this in mind, it’s important to offer quiet play spaces where kids can take a break. Especially for children with sensory processing disorders, providing a place to regroup is essential. In fact, it may encourage them to rejoin physical play, rather than leave the playground altogether.

There are numerous ways to incorporate quiet play in your playground. Under deck benches offer a calm place to socialize, while logs and crawl tunnels provide a cool reading nook. For those who want to go the extra mile, there’s also our Quiet Grove. This peaceful retreat combines the soothing benefits of nature with five sensory activities – letting kids destress during their play time.

5. Ramps and Transfer Stations

It might go without saying, but ramps and transfer stations are paramount for any inclusive playground. For children in wheelchairs or mobility devices, ramps provide complete independence as they navigate the playground. Socially, ramps also boost kids’ confidence by letting them play alongside their friends at a variety of activities.

Transfer stations, on the other hand, allow children to access the play structure without using their mobility device. While not fully inclusive (like ramps are) transfer stations do have several important applications. For one, they take up a lower footprint, making them more practical to use in tight areas. Additionally, transfer stations are more affordable, letting customers on a budget add some accessibility to their playground.

Child and caretaker exiting an inclusive Wheelchair Ramp at Lon C. Hill Park in Harlingen, TX.
Nu-Edge playground at City Park in New Orleans, LA with inclusive ADA Transfer Station.

6. Install a Safety Fence

Installing a fence around your playground is a great way to promote independence, while also keeping kids safe. Children with autism and other developmental disorders tend to run away or roam too far. However, a fence sets a safe boundary for them to explore the playground on their own terms. It’s a win-win for everybody.

While installing a fence might seem simple, there are some basic guidelines you should follow. Firstly, the entrance should be wide enough to accommodate wheelchairs and mobility devices. Secondly, for those with visual impairments, it’s a good idea to paint your fence’s gate a bright colour. Lastly, fence posts should be spaced out far enough to maintain clear sightlines for parents and caretakers.

Child jumping off of a Nu-Edge Crawl Log at List Elementary School in Frankenmuth, MI.

7. Shelters and Shade Sails

On hot sunny days, it’s crucial to give kids and parents a place to cool off. An easy way to supply shade to your playground is by installing shelters and gazebos. When paired with park furniture, shelters provide the perfect place to eat meals and host events. Some schools have even converted their playground’s shelter into a functional outdoor classroom!

Aside from shelters, there’s also shade sails, which can be incorporated directly into the playground. This option allows kids to continue their play journey and never miss a moment of fun. We’re proud to say that our shade sails block up to 96% of harmful UV rays – giving you peace of mind while your child plays!

Gable Shelter and six Picnic Tables at Meridian Elementary School in Meridian, ID.
Child sliding down a Chameleon II Slide at Mary Heads Carter Park in Carrolton, TX.

8. Provide Active Motion

In addition to the 5 main senses, there are also 3 less familiar sensory systems. These include the vestibular, proprioceptive, and interoceptive systems. These systems help kids understand their body in relation to space, gravity, and movement. Especially for children with sensory processing disorders, it’s important to include activities with lots of spinning, swinging, and rocking.

Multi-user rockers, like our Alta Glide and Together Glider, easily connect to wheelchair ramps. In addition, there’s also spinners that can be accessed from the ground level, like our Revolution Spinner and Inclusive Whirl. All are great options to bring together children of varying abilities. Some can even accommodate up to 10 kids at once!

9. Sensory Play Equipment

Sensory playgrounds allow children to engage more fully in play by appealing to their main senses. This has a number of positive benefits to their development. Physically, sensory playgrounds improve balance, coordination, and motor skills. Mentally, they help kids discern sights, sounds, and textures. And socially, kids will learn how to play cooperatively with others.

Children with visual impairments will benefit from tactile play experiences, such as roller slides and textured panels. On the other hand, children who are deaf will enjoy activities with bright, vibrant colours – such as our N-R-G Builders line. Finally, throwing in vestibular activities (like spring riders) is a great way to bring a physical challenge to your playground.

Child sliding down an inclusive Roller Slide at Lon C. Hill Park in Harlingen, TX.

10. Musical Play Elements

Music plays a big role in a child’s development. It teaches them pattern recognition and fine motor skills, while also allowing room for creativity. Designed at an accessible angle and height, our Concerto musical equipment can be played comfortably by all children. Best of all, each instrument is carefully tuned by music professionals – letting kids play real songs!

The Concerto line is entirely freestanding and can be installed in multiple configurations. This makes it easy to create full-band setups, or just incorporate a few instruments. However, for those with limited space, there’s still a variety of musical panels to choose from. This ranges from the simplicity of our Beat Blocks, to the more advanced Melody Maker Panel.