A Response to NPR: Accessible Playgrounds

I hope all of you heard or read NPR articles on accessible playgrounds.  Let Kids Play was pleased to have provided background information to the reporter working on the story.  It is great that NPR has brought attention to the issue of playgrounds for everyone.  After reading the comments on the story, I wanted to address some of the issues that have been raised by the articles.

It does not cost more to follow ADA

It is now the law that any new playground installed in a public space in the United States must be built to ADA standards.  Playgrounds built to these standards cost NO more than a playground built prior to 2012.  At this point in would be impossible to purchase playground equipment from a United States manufacturer without it meeting ADA.  However, there is a difference between a playground that is ADA compliant and one that is truly accessible.  Accessibleplayground.net’s playground directory only lists those playgrounds that exceed ADA.

There is a difference between ADA, Accessible and Inclusive

There is a difference between a playground that is ADA compliant, truly accessible and truly inclusive.  ADA, when it comes to playgrounds, is primarily concerned with people using mobility devises.  When a playground is built to ADA standards it lets a person who is using a wheelchair get in and around the playground.  It enables that person to get on a module structure.  It doesn’t necessarily enable that child to actually use any of the playground equipment.

An accessible playground goes beyond ADA compliance.  A truly accessible playground will enable a person using a wheelchair to use the equipment.  An accessible playground will have better surfacing enabling a person using a wheelchair to maneuver through the playground easier.  It may have playground pieces that children with autism enjoy—things that move and/or make music.  There may be quiet places for children to go and calm down.  There may be pieces like an accessible swing seat and back to see-saws to enable a child with limited body support to enjoy this type of movement.

An inclusive playground goes beyond an accessible one in that it is designed to encourage children of all abilities to play with one another. This playground is one where every child who goes to the playground is challenged at their level.  It is a playground that may have pieces like an accessible glider which enables a person using a wheelchair to experience movement, along with all of their typically developing peers.

It is all about the surfacing

It is the surfacing that can increase the cost of a playground.  Safety regulations require that every playground have a safety surface.  That surface can by loose fill or synthetic.  Wood chips, (called Engineered Wood fiber by the industry), is the least expensive surfacing that provides safety and meets ADA.  Here are the problems with wood chips:

  • If the wood chips get deplenished, it is no longer safe.
  • If the wood chips are not raked on a regular basis, they no longer meet ADA
  • It is difficult, if not impossible, to push a wheelchair or stroller through wood chips
  • Young children and some children with developmental disabilities will pick up the chips and mouth it
  • It gets tracked everywhere including into the nearby buildings (like a school) and drives the maintenance staff crazy.

So there issues beyond accessibility to consider when looking to purchase the more expensive surfacing.  Everyone agrees that synthetic surfaces are easier for a person in a wheelchair to maneuver.  There are basically three types of synthetic surfaces, Pour-in-Place (which is what is described in the NPR articles), tiles and turf.  There are advantages and disadvantages for all.  When a community or school is making a decision about surfacing they should ask tons of questions about ADA compliance, HIC ratings (safety), freezing, and more.  Here are some places to read more:


All Inclusive Playground DO NOT need to be 15,000 sq. ft and $250,000+

I love Leathers and Associate playgrounds like Brooklyn’s Playground which was highlighted on NPR.  They are creative, fun and challenging.  They are big destination playgrounds.  They make a great community asset.  However, they are not appropriate for every community and every park.

You can make any playground more inclusive by laying out the equipment in a more effective way and selecting the equipment with an eye to inclusive.  The Inclusive Play Design Guide gives you many different ways to increase inclusion.

To do it right, you do need to spend the extra money on surfacing; but again, any size playground can have this surfacing.  Adding more ground level activities such as spinners, musical instruments, see-saws makes the playground more exciting for all kids and makes it more usable by children with a disability. Water and sand play can also be added in a small area and are fun for all ages and abilities.

Inclusive Playgrounds DO NOT need to be boring

I have seen plenty of boring accessible playgrounds; playgrounds with a lot of ramps and not a lot of challenge.  But is not what it should be like.  A good inclusive playground has activities that challenge 5-year-olds and 12-year-olds; has activities that are usable by children who use mobility devises and those who do not.  A good inclusive playground is rich in sensory activities, social experiences and physical play.  Here are just a few pictures of exciting inclusive playgrounds.

See more pictures on our Pinterest Page

Accessibleplayground.net will still be offering its detailed directory

Accessibleplayground.net has been offering a directory of inclusive and accessible playgrounds for 5 years.  In fact, a majority of the playgrounds listed on the NPR app were generated by accessibleplayground.net. In our directory there are over 800 entries from 8 different countries.  We continue to add more every day.  (We add over a dozen this weekend).

The difference between our directory and the new NPR directory is that we provide as much detail as we can find about the playground.  If we can determine it, from the resources we can find, we will tell you what else is in the park, whether there is a restroom, what type of equipment is on the playground.  We provide links for you to find more information.

Just like NPR’s app, you can add a playground that you know about to our directory.  The difference is we will review the entry to make sure the information is correct prior to going live on the site.  We hope that you will help us keep the directory as up-to-date as possible by providing us with new playgrounds and additional information about the playgrounds already listed.


Want to learn more?  Visit these sites:

Water Play Is Fun For All – The Play and Playground News Center

It’s almost summer! It took a long time to get here this year, but it is finally here. For me, summer has always meant swimming, sprinklers, and sunbathing. I love water. A water exercise class has been the only exercise I have kept up with. I just love going to the pool and reading a book (with sunscreen on, of course), and then jumping in once I get too hot.

There are many reasons I love the water. It is probably the same reasons so many people love the water. Playing in water has restorative properties: it alleviates stress and helps to regulate emotions. Many of us take a long bath to relieve stress and take refreshing showers when we are overwhelmed. I get my most creative ideas when showering.

Read more at Water Play Is Fun For All – The Play and Playground News Center.

Recreation Magazine explores the Upswing in Inclusive Play

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.

Read more in this eight page piece about Inclusive Playgrounds

Great videos on the importance of accessible playgrounds

The Magical Bridge will be a playground in Palo Alto, CA.  The mission of the organizing committee is to provide a playground where families of all abilities can experience.  They have done a great job defining the need for a new playground from both the stand point of a child with a disabilities and an adult using a wheelchair in these videos:

Dreaming of Playgrounds

The Magical Bridge

Discovery Playground in the City of Auburn wins awards for amazing accessible playground

The City of Auburn received a spotlight facility award at the annual Washington Recreation & Park Association (WRPA) conference last month, receiving the highest honor for the Discovery Playground. The judges were impressed with the features of the playground and the successful fundraising efforts. Spotlight award categories included parks, facilities, sports complexes, special use areas, websites, posters, special events, and adult or youth programs. The Discovery Playground also received Best Community Service Program from the Washington Festival & Events Association at their annual conference in March.

Here is an 11 minutes video that is worth spending time watching as it is a wonderful explanation of why we build accessible playgrounds.

Double Hill SlidesAuburn’s new 32,000 square foot Discovery Playground opened in June 2010 to the delight of thousands of children. This unique playground features accessible surfacing; play opportunities that support all levels of development; elevated sandHill Slide tables, water, and auditory elements; cozy spots to gather; areas to swing, spin, balance, roll and play. Tactile surfaces and a sensory garden include an integrated system of spaces devoted to the five senses: see, hear, touch, taste and smell. The playground was designed with the physical, sensory and developmental abilities of all children in mind and is a place where children of all abilities learn together through play, develop essential life skills, and participate in an environment where compassion and acceptance flourish.

In just under nine months, the Discovery Playground fundraising campaign raised over $319,824 to support of the project, including $94,172 of in-kind services that were donated toward the project. Climbing NetDonations were received by 71 separate funding sources, including individuals, corporations, businesses, granting agencies, foundations, service clubs, children and service providers. In addition to the financial support, members of the community supported the project by planting the entire sensory garden and assisting with the playground landscaping. Service groups and other community groups are assisting with the long term upkeep as needed.


All Are Welcome Here

Penny plays on accessible playground equipment
Penny plays on accessible playground equipment

Today we have a guest blog from Amy Julia Becker, mom to Penny (above) and William. Amy Julia is a writer and a student at Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey. At Thin Places she blogs about “theology, disability, children and parenting, education, and the intersection of grief and hope.” Thank you Amy Julia!

“Architecture is evangelism.” I heard it said in the context of church buildings. The speaker was making the point that a ramp at the back of the sanctuary might comply with ADA standards, but it isn’t exactly welcoming to individuals in wheelchairs. I’ve been trying to think of an equally pithy way to state this truth for the rest of the world. “Architecture sends a message” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, but the point stands. The way our buildings, homes, and public spaces are constructed says everything about which people we want to see in those places.

Last week, my mother and I took my kids to our first Boundless playground, a playground intentionally designed to include children with a variety of strengths and abilities. I noticed the swings first—a few that looked the same as every other playground, and two with full back support and harnesses, big enough to hold an elementary-school aged child. Our daughter Penny, age four, has Down syndrome, and I remember the days when she could only spend 60 seconds in a swing before needing to get down. That low muscle tone made it hard to hold her head up, so the enjoyment of swinging was limited by the design of the swing. At this playground, those bright yellow swings stood out as an invitation for any child to swing with abandon.

And then I noticed that the path up to the slide was quite wide. Wide enough, in fact, for a wheelchair. Along the way up, we discovered “stations”—Braille on one plastic board, a xylophone elsewhere, knobs and different textures lining the walls. Penny and William, our 18-month old son, didn’t seem to notice anything different. They just thought it was fun to slide and swing and seesaw, play peekaboo, run and climb and spin.

A few years ago, it took courage for me to take Penny to a playground. I wondered what questions I might get, particularly, “How old is she?” and then a surprised look when I said “Two,” and they watched her take those tentative early steps, watched her tiny body navigate whatever treacherous structure loomed ahead. I worried about older children knocking her down. I wasn’t even sure she would have fun, since she couldn’t run and jump and climb like other kids her age.

Now, Penny can run and jump and climb. There are still things she can’t do, but she’s old enough now that most playgrounds are pretty fun spots. And if I’m honest about it, even in this inclusive setting, a child in a wheelchair would run into some barriers fairly quickly. She could wheel herself to the xylophone, but she couldn’t get all the way to the highest slide without assistance. She couldn’t get up and ride on the bouncy horse or sit on the giant seesaw by herself. Even a “boundless” playground can’t remove all physical limitations.

So for a moment, the cynic in me kicked in. What’s the point of this place? Penny can have fun on most any playground these days. And it would still be tough for some kids to navigate this one. But the purpose of this space goes beyond physical barriers. It tackles social ones, which is more than half the battle. Because what this playground said to me was, You are welcome here. And so is your daughter, who has glasses and a physical therapist and an individualized education plan. Your daughter, who has by now introduced herself to everyone else on the playground with, “Hi, what’s your name? Want to play?”

Architecture sends a message. In this case, thankfully, the message was: Come on in. Play with us. Stay for a while.

This article was written by By Amy Julia Becker who blogs at Thin Places, at www.amyjuliabecker.blogspot.com.  The article was orginally published in BLOOM–Parenting Kids with Disabilities (http://bloom-parentingkidswithdisabilities.blogspot.com/)