For more than 100 years, Americans have recognized the benefits—physical, emotional and cognitive—of a well-equipped playground. Yet, for much of that century, those perks were only available to children with legs agile enough to climb ladders, arms strong enough to hang from the monkey bars and social skills keen enough to embrace the park's many offerings.
Though accessible playgrounds have generated industry buzz for decades, there has been major progress toward "inclusive" or "universal" parks in recent years. Progressive recreation managers realize that accessibility is more than just ensuring that a wheelchair can reach the play equipment easily or that the park satisfies the bare minimum established by the Americans with Disabilities Act. They recognize that accessibility is not enough. Modern playgrounds must be inclusive, designed specifically to ensure that children of multiple abilities can play together—not just alongside one another.
That means providing rich tactile, proprioceptive, vestibular, visual and auditory experiences for children with autism. It means swings with chairs for those who can't sit up on their own and gliders wide enough for wheelchairs. And it means rethinking your layout with an eye toward making everyone feel as if they belong in the playground.
"You have to look at it as an opportunity to not only improve physical function, but just as importantly, social skills as well," said Tim Miller, CTRS, a certified recreational therapist and recreation superintendent for Pasadena, Texas. "The benefits are endless."
Miller can give witness to such benefits, as Pasadena opened its first universal-access playground in January. The 7,000-square-foot playground features a wide array of play components, most of which are accessible by wheelchair. The ground is covered with a pour-and-play material that provides a smooth surface for wheelchairs and scooters, with some give for children who fall.
The playground, among other things, boasts a roller slide. Unlike a traditional slide that creates friction on a child's skin, this slide works like a roller belt and provides valuable tactile stimulation. It's also wide enough for two people to use, so a child can go down with the help of a brother, sister or caregiver.
For children in wheelchairs, the playground boasts handcycles and foot pedals. There are also pull-bars that have been designed specifically for patrons in chairs. Another element, Sway Fun, can hold wheelchairs as it glides back and forth.
Most everything is on ramps, with 24 of the 36 elements directly accessible from the ramps. There is a sandbox and activity table brought up to wheelchair level so all visitors can use it. A second sandbox has an accessible crane device so children in wheelchairs can dig. And activity boards throughout the park provide a sense of audio stimulation with bells and chimes.
"It really shows that the administration realizes we're here to serve a whole population and not just a segment of it," Miller said.