Play for All–Thinking Outside the Ramp

Article written by Mara Kaplan and Ian Proud. Reprinted with Permission from Recreation Magazine

It’s time to rethink ramps.

Since the 1970s, parks and recreation departments have been obligated under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to provide outdoor play equipment that is accessible. That means there must be an accessible route through the play areas so children with disabilities and their caregivers have a pathway to reach all the various play components.

Until now, making playgrounds ADA-compliant meant adding ramps. But accessibility means so much more than making sure wheelchairs can reach the upper decks of a conventional playground design. To truly meet the recreational needs of children with disabilities and their families, inclusive play must be a fundamental consideration beginning at the playground design conceptualization stage. Only then will we create playgrounds where children of all abilities can fully enjoy the benefits of play.

The task may seem daunting—especially for smaller entities that may not be aware of all the available options. However, when imaginatively designed and expertly executed, playground equipment can provide an outstanding sensory experience that not only meets the play needs of children with disabilities, but appeals to all park-goers.

Why Play?

Before examining ways to make playgrounds more inclusive, it’s important to remember the purpose of play. Play should be an enriching experience that gives children a chance to exercise their bodies and imaginations, solve problems, challenge their limits and enjoy interacting socially with their friends.

Many playground designs are based on the notion that ramps are the answer because they meet the ADA requirement that playgrounds be easy to approach, enter and move through. But being accessible doesn’t necessarily mean the equipment offers the best possible play experiences for children with disabilities. The assumption is ramps will be utilized by children who use a mobility device and by children with disabilities who want to reach higher areas. However, according to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act Data Accountability Center, only 2 percent of children with disabilities use a mobility device, and certainly not all children with disabilities want to access high structures.

Consider this scenario:

A caregiver pushes a child in a wheelchair up a ramp.

Problem: The adult gets the exercise, not the child.

At the top of the ramp, there are play panels installed to meet the ADA regulations.

Problem: Many of these play panels are simplistic, so they aren’t challenging, nor do they provide a meaningful social experience.

After the child uses the play panel, the caregiver has two choices: turn around and push the child in the wheelchair back down the ramp; or transfer the child out of the chair and put him or her on the slide—assuming the child has enough trunk control to go down the slide.

Problem: The child is left stranded at the bottom of the slide, while the caregiver remains at the top with the wheelchair. The caregiver must run down the ramp to get to the child as quickly as possible before another child comes down the slide.

In addition to children who rely on mobility devices, what about those children who have other disabilities such as autism, intellectual or language delays, or visual or hearing impairments? How do ramps help them meet the goals of play? The simple answer is: they don’t.

Achieving Inclusive Play

While ramps continue to have a place at the playground, it’s important not to design the entire playground around them. On inclusive playgrounds, all children can achieve the benefits that play has to offer.

How is inclusive play achieved?

One solution is to provide more ground-level equipment. If more children played on ground-level equipment, there would be more opportunities for swinging, swaying and jumping—all the activities children need to develop their vestibular system, which is the sensory system that contributes to a person’s balance and sense of spatial orientation.

This is especially true for children with autism. Ground-level activities allow more opportunities for social play, such as swinging next to a friend, playing together on a seesaw, and running or wheeling around through different challenges laid out with a variety of play equipment. If the majority of children engage in ground-level activities, then a child with even the most profound disability can be included.

Adding creatively designed ground-level equipment to the playground creates a social space where all children and adults can play together and encourage one another. For a parent raising a child with a disability, there is nothing more rewarding than having your child cheered instead of jeered.

Play for All

People of all ages, backgrounds and abilities benefit from play. That’s why it’s essential to provide opportunities for children of any ability to play alongside one another.

When designing a playground, the goal should be to offer inclusive play, not just access. Consider the playground’s purpose and the children who will play on the equipment.

A smart first step is to partner with a like-minded, experienced playground equipment manufacturer that specializes in offering an optimal recreational experience and is deeply committed to the principles of inclusive play. Inclusive play shouldn’t be an afterthought, but something the manufacturer contemplates throughout the entire product development process.

In addition to incorporating ground-level activities throughout the play area, other elements to consider include decks that are comfortably roomy. Play equipment should offer a wide range of sensory experiences, with activities that are challenging and feature motion, tactile experiences, quiet places, sounds and music. Ramps should be creatively designed and situated as close to the bottom of any slide as possible.

Creating inclusive play environments that transcend the norm also requires input from the end user. Designers should consult children with disabilities and their families during the planning process, and provide an opportunity for them to engage with existing playgrounds and give critical feedback. Doing so will help us evolve from standard playgrounds that meet basic requirements to truly inclusive and meaningful play spaces everyone can enjoy.

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