Principles of Inclusive Playground Design: Designing playgrounds to benefit all

By Cheri Ruane, FASLA

The concept of “universal” or “inclusive” design means that the design of products and environments should make them usable by all people to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design. This includes people of all ages with autism, intellectual disabilities, hearing impairments, cerebral palsy, spina bifida, and other emotional or physical disabilities, as well as their caregivers. The concept also addresses the needs of more typical children.

When it comes to playgrounds, such inclusive design should accommodate everyone and challenge them at their own developmental level.

The goal of designing inclusive playgrounds is to maximize each facility’s usability by individuals with a wide variety of characteristics. Whether we are talking about learning strategies or physical space, inclusive design operates by a distinct set of principles designed to maximize access and enjoyability by everyone, alongside their family and friends.

As with many aspects of our daily lives, one size does not fit all. Well-designed outdoor play environments must include a variety of experiences, be accessible to people with varying skill sets, and most importantly, THEY SHOULD BE FUN!!!

With each new universal design, we have an opportunity to move the needle on what constitutes a great playground. You simply cannot make progress if it’s not compelling to people of all ages and abilities. The experience must appeal to people’s sensory abilities and preferences in terms of sound, vision, and touch and be appropriate for everyone, regardless of the user's sensory abilities.

Let’s look more closely at the seven principles that govern universal playground design.

PRINCIPLE 1: Equitable Use
The design is useful and marketable to people with diverse abilities.

  • Provide the same means of use for all users that are identical whenever possible; equivalent when not
  • Avoid segregating or stigmatizing any users
  • Provisions for privacy, security, and safety should be equally available to all users
  • Make the design appealing to all users

All users should use similar or adjacent means of access when playing. The experience of the play features should appeal to a variety of interests and needs. Physical effort should be minimized with light to moderate force, but this doesn’t mean it shouldn’t involve some level of risk.  A variety of means of approach to the same element can be effective. For example, a multi-level water table should accommodate users of different heights and abilities, including those in wheelchairs.

Ensuring adequate clearance for mobility devices is another important component. One example involves a tall slide that may be accessed by a hillside scramble, a rope ladder, and a sloped pathway so that each individual arrives at the top by whatever means best fits that person.

A children's playground.

PRINCIPLE 2: Flexibility in Use
The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.

  • Provide choice in methods of use
  • Accommodate right- or left-handed access and use
  • Facilitate the user's accuracy and precision
  • Provide adaptability to the user's pace

Flexible design in inclusive playgrounds means that the design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities, including low- to high-risk takers.  A play feature that includes adaptable features for a range of users will be most flexible. For example, interactive elements like musical instruments may be flush with the ground to walk on or roll over, at seated height for touch, or overhead to reach and stretch. The output should also be varied (e.g., vibration and sound, etc.). Interactive features like hand bikes and balance beams can be used in a variety of positions (sitting, standing, on the ground, or on a supporting surface). All interactive features should be mounted or securely attached to a footing so that people can use these elements to move from sitting to standing and vice versa.

A child playing.

PRINCIPLE 3: Simple and Intuitive Use
Use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user's experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level.

  • Eliminate unnecessary complexity
  • Be consistent with user expectations and intuition
  • Accommodate a wide range of literacy and language skills
  • Arrange information consistent with its importance
  • Provide effective prompting and feedback during and after task completion

A simple, inclusive design allows a feature’s use regardless of the user’s abilities. For example, it should be obvious for people in wheelchairs that the transfer steps and handrails for certain activities are meant to support their engagement. Concentration level is an often-overlooked consideration. Kids and adults may have different levels of concentration, even within the span of a park visit.

PRINCIPLE 4: Perceptible Information
The design communicates necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of ambient conditions or the user's sensory abilities.

  • Use different modes (pictorial, verbal, tactile) for redundant presentation of essential information
  • Provide adequate contrast between essential information and its surroundings
  • Maximize "legibility" of essential information
  • Differentiate elements in ways that can be described (i.e., make it easy to give instructions or directions)
  • Provide compatibility with a variety of techniques or devices used by people with sensory limitations

One example of universally perceptible information in inclusive design is the use of different colors to indicate the intensity of experience on specific pieces of play equipment. For tall slides and speedy spinners, a warmer color indicates a high level of intensity. At the water table or musical instruments, a cooler color signals a calmer environment.

Liberty Playground Plano Texas

PRINCIPLE 5: Tolerance for Error
The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.

  • Arrange elements to minimize hazards and errors (i.e., the most used elements should be the most accessible, whereas the most challenging elements should be less centralized)
  • Provide warnings of hazards and errors
  • Provide failsafe features
  • Discourage unconscious action in tasks that require vigilance

Inclusive design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions. Children are always looking to use playground equipment in ways that the designers had not intended. Can the child make a mistake using the equipment and not get hurt? This must be carefully balanced, however, with a kid’s innate desire to take risks and use the equipment in ways that are outside their comfort zone. Each play “event” should appeal to individuals at varying age and developmental levels and should promote its use in more than one way (e.g., a spinner can be moved from a seated position on the ground to being sat or stood upon).

A woman pushing a child in a wheelchair down a ramp.

PRINCIPLE 6: Low Physical Effort
The design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum of fatigue.

  • Allow user to maintain a neutral body position
  • Use reasonable operating forces
  • Minimize repetitive actions
  • Minimize sustained physical effort

Inclusive design allows for the users to be able to exert all the energy they would like once they get to a specific place in the play environment. However, an uneven access path, for example, could tire out users in wheelchairs or on crutches before they even get to where they want to go, which can cause frustration. This doesn’t mean that all approach sequences to play events need to be low physical effort. That will not create a diverse experience, nor will it create the possibility of goal setting for incremental advancement of one’s own development. Instead, it is important to provide multiple means of access with varying degrees of physical difficulty while always including a path of less or low resistance for those that need it. This also encourages imagination and social play and promotes discovering new ways to play (i.e., cause/effect, building, pretending) and stimulates physical or mental activity.

Children at a playground.

PRINCIPLE 7: Size and Space for Approach and Use
Appropriate size and space are provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use regardless of the user's body size, posture, or mobility.

  • Provide a clear line of sight to important elements for any seated or standing user
  • Make the reach to all components comfortable for any seated or standing user
  • Accommodate variations in hand and grip size
  • Provide adequate space for the use of assistive devices or personal assistance

Because of the space needs of the users of inclusive playgrounds, both in accessing and experiencing the spaces, accommodations for approach, reach, and manipulation must be made. Such designs, for example, would provide ample space to park a wheelchair or walker while the child engages with water or music play. Another example might be that users who are not very steady on their feet may need a larger standing area on the equipment than more able-bodied users.

Additional Considerations

Please note that the principles of universal design address more than just usability. Designers must also incorporate other considerations such as economic, engineering, cultural, gender, and environmental concerns into their design processes. The principles described in this article offer designers guidance to better integrate features that meet the needs of as many users as possible.

No matter the size or shape of an inclusive playground, there are always ways to design it so that it can be used and enjoyed by a wide range of abilities. All it takes is some thought, some good ideas, and a little bit of creative thinking.

Cheri Ruane, RLA

Cheri Ruane, RLA

Cheri Ruane, FASLA is a Vice President and Design Discipline Lead at Weston & Sampson’s Design Studio in Boston

Other Resources:

The Principles of Universal Design, North Carolina State University, The Center for Universal Design, 1997

Designing For Inclusive Play: Applying The Principles Of Universal Design To The Playground, National Center on Accessibility, 2007

This article was originally published in Parks and Recreation magazine, September 2022.

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