Inclusive Play Design Guide: Now Available

A new go-to resource for developing inclusive playgrounds has just been published: The Inclusive Play Design Guide.  Here are the basic facts about this wonderful new publication:

The Design Guide is not a rulebook

The most important fact about the Design Guide is that it is truly a guide.  As a decision maker or designer of a playground, you may choose to emphasize one strategy over another, or create a strategy of your own to achieve an intent not mentioned within The Guide Make these decisions consciously, with an understanding of the tradeoffs and consequences.

How can I get a copy of the Inclusive Play Design Guide?

You can download your free copy here.

After reading it, if I have ideas, feedback or other comments, what do I do?

The Work Group strongly encourages you to provide your thoughts after reading the Guide.  A survey will be collecting all this date.  It will also be collecting information on which concepts people feel are the most important when designing an inclusive playground.

What is the purpose of the Design Guide?

To offer inspiration and guidance to support the design of an inclusive, universally designed outdoor playground.

Who is the Design Guide for?

People who care about inclusion and aim to create a play space in their community for people of all ages and abilities.

How was the Design Guide developed?

Work Group learning from Preston's Hope in Ohio

The Design Guide was developed through a consensus-based process and led by a work group of industry professionals. This diverse group of individuals represents a cross-section of child development, inclusive advocacy, landscape architecture and playground industry expertise. In addition, the majority of the work group are parents to a child with a disability.

After the work group finished its rough draft, another group of individuals, again representing a cross-section of development, inclusive advocacy, landscape architecture, parents, and playground expertise, reviewed the Guide.  Their comments and feedback were edited into the Guide.

The group pledged to move the industry beyond basic compliance with the American Disabilities Act (ADA) and work to achieve more enriching play experiences for all people, regardless of age or ability. The goal of the committee is to serve as a third-party source for collecting and communicating objective data to help communities develop 21st century inclusive playgrounds.

As a disclosure, Mara Kaplan of Let Kids Play was a member of the work group and the editor of the Inclusive Play Design Guide.

Why is this Design Guide necessary?

Regardless of the best intentions, interesting products placed together on the playground do not make it inclusive. Designers must be mindful of the impact individual decisions make to the entire experience. From the directional signage to the overall playspace layout. From the location of sound-making events to the location of benches, accessible routes and perimeter fencing, all these have impact on certain users.

This Design Guide attempts to inspire and educate people on their journey to inclusive play with the hope that individual decisions are made with an understanding of the effect of that decision for everyone.

What is in the Design Guide?

Guidelines and Laws–The assumptions made about the supporting laws, guidelines and context for the Design Guide.

Planning & Preparation-Planning is the key to successfully executing a universal playground. Involving the right people early in the planning process with the knowledge, skills, empathies and connections needed to succeed may be the most important step you take on the project.

Layout–Playground designers make the difference between a poor playground and an excellent one. Layout is the biggest single factor between only typically-developing children playing and everyone playing, since the design of the equipment is irrelevant if it is poorly sited or doesn’t create an opportunity for children of different abilities to play alongside one another.

Access–This section deals with the design of the play space and surrounding environment as it relates to the users and caregivers getting into, around, and out of the play area.

Selecting Equipment–These intents help with conscious and well thought- out decisions when selecting equipment. The planning committee should have in-depth conversations to address the issues raised in this section, prior to purchasing any equipment. Equipment can mean manufactured playground equipment or natural elements that are usedas play activities.

Play Richness-Every child who comes to the playground should be able to play on developmentally and age appropriate equipment. Friends should be able to climb, swing or spin next to one another regardless of their abilities. The Design Guide working group recognizes that, depending on the age, size or ability of a child, there will be pieces of equipment that they may not choose to, or be able to play on. However, when a few principles are followed the playground will be fun for all children.

Every disability is a spectrum. Every child has different abilities. Some children will require a lot of support while playing; others will require significantly less; and others will be able to play independently. To fulfill the needs of everyone on the playground choose multiple pieces of equipment within each category of play events with different challenge levels.

Support features--Grouping a series of good-looking play events together will not ensure a good play experience. Similarly, siting the play space along a road in the community that has some open land is unlikely to be inclusive without further thought about the needs of all people who will be visiting. The support systems can ensure that everyone is welcome. The parent with the service animal will need different amenities than the child who uses a wheelchair. Looking at the play area from the point of view of user and their caregiver will increase the chance of making them feel welcome in the play space.

Glossary–An explanation of terms used in the Guide.

Resources--Websites, articles, and books to find additional information

Surfacing Appendix-An exploration of the advantages and disadvantages of different types of surfacing.

Who sponsored the writing of the Inclusive Play Design Guide?

Playworld Systems, a leading manufacturer of imaginative playground and fitness equipment, conceived of the concept of the Guide, facilitation the development process, and funded the entire project.
Yet, the Inclusive Play Design Guide, was not created as a sales tool for the company, but as a gift to the community.  The Guide is manufacturer neutral so that it can be used as an independent third-party resource by anyone looking to create an inclusive playground.  Besides the front cover, you will not find a single picture of a piece of Playworld Systems equipment.
You can find out much more about Playworld Systems products and their commitment to inclusive play throughout  They are a sponsor of

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.

Ideas for the design of your accessible playground from Unlimited Play

Unlimited Play is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization that helps to plan, design, and build fully accessible playgrounds that allow all children – regardless of their abilities – to play together. A valuable resource in our community, Unlimited Play has the unique expertise in this area, and are available to assist in the development of something important to all children – playgrounds.

Unlimited Play’s projects

Zachary’s Playground at Hawk Ridge Park in Lake St. Louis, MO – Completed Spring 2007

Shaw Park Tree Top Playground in Clayton, MO – Scheduled completion Oct. 16, 2010

Bug’s Life Playground at Westhoff Park in OFallon, MO – Scheduled completion Summer 2011

Playground at Jaycee Park in St Charles, MO – Scheduled completion Fall 2011

Unlimited Play has shared with us their thoughts on how to build a great accessible playground:

Getting off to the right start – four important areas of consideration when planning to build an inclusive and accessible playground.

1.Provide sensory feedback – Tactile, visual, and audio stimulation helps the hearing and visually impaired

๏Locate chimes or bells throughout the playground to help those with visual impairments know where they are. Child enjoying water play

๏Distinguish paths to help those with visual impairments navigate the playground.

๏Use Braille lettering to accompany the words on all signs.

๏Incorporate sensory items such as netting, swinging, textures, smells throughout the playground

๏Choose a metal slide versus a plastic slide as it will be better for kids with hearing implants.

๏Use fencing for children who may have trouble understanding boundaries, as well as for safety precautions.

๏Supply shade and water play for those with temperature regulation problems and sensitive skin.

๏Install UV-protected awnings over benches to protect individuals who may be light sensitive or on medications that prevents them from extended exposure to direct sunlight.

2.Encourage the development of gross motor skills – Provide opportunities for children to exercise the larger muscle groups.

Girl Playing on Playground Deck๏Vary climbers to challenge all levels of abilities. (Use curved climbing poles so children have “footholds” as a way to support themselves…as well as straight poles to provide a greater challenge.)

๏Include swings with extra back and arm support for children who need it.

๏Place horizontal climbing bars at a level at which children in wheelchairs can pull themselves up.

๏Utilize surfaces other than mulch or gravel, allowing easier access for children using wheel chairs or walkers.

๏Use ramping systems to allow access to higher elements of the playground.

3.Help improve fine motor skills – Promote the use of hands and fingers in  coordination with the eyes.

๏Install activity panels that encourage basic hand movements. Grandma and Child play together on the playground

๏Use games (such as tic-tac-toe) to nurture fine motor skills, as well as to promote cognitive development.

๏Use different activities to offer varying degrees of difficulty in hand-eye coordination movements.

๏Keep in mind that children may be accessing equipment and activity panels with body parts other than hands (elbows, forearms, knees, shoulders, etc.).

4.Address children’s communication, social and emotional needs – Remember, children need to play with other children!

2 children playing together on the playground๏Encourage interaction between two or more children with activities such as double slides, talk tubes, games, etc.

๏Provide themed play pieces that promote imaginary play or social interaction.

๏Use equipment that promotes children working together to reach a common goal (for example, “Sway Fun” wheelchair-accessible glider swings).

๏Keep in mind that accessibility features also allow adults with disabilities or older adults to interact with their children or grandchildren throughout the playground.

Thank you again to Unlimited Play for sharing your wisdom with us!

Top 10 considerations when designing an accessible playground

Below is an excerpt from Technical Guidance relating to Playground Layout & Design produced by Association of Play Industries (API)  in cooperation with  Kids,  and Register of Play Inspectors Internationa.  All three of these organizations are located in the United Kingdom.

In this excerpt, dealing specifically about accessible playgrounds are some key thoughts about developing truly inclusive playgrounds where all children play together.  I would encourage anyone who is thinking of designing an accessible playground to put these ideas on the table at the  very beginning of planning and return to the concepts throughout the planning process.  I have recapped at the end of the post 10 key items that can be taken from this report.

Accessible play spaces for disabled and nondisabled children

In general it is really important to understand that children’s abilities, in general, are very diverse. When considering disability it is equally important to remember this, and that it is much wider than physical impairments. It is essential to think about all types of impairment (sensory, physical, communication etc). Not all children use a wheelchair and a play space should reflect this diversity and individuality of children and their play. That’s why it is important to consult with local users including disabled children in the local area to see what adjustments they could suggest to make the area more accessible.

The DDA Act 1995* defines disability as any mental or physical condition that affects one’s ability to carry out normal day to day activities. These are activities which are carried out by most people on a fairly regular and frequent basis. The term is not intended to include activities which are normal only for a particular person or group of people, such as playing a musical instrument, or a sport, to a professional standard or performing a skilled or specialist task at work. However, someone who is affected in such a specialised way but is also affected in normal day-to-day activities would be covered by this part of the definition. The test of whether impairment affects normal day-to-day activities is whether it affects one of the broad categories of capacity listed in Schedule 1 to the Act. These are:

  • mobility;
  • manual dexterity;
  • physical co-ordination;
  • continence;
  • ability to lift, carry or otherwise move everyday objects;
  • speech, hearing or eyesight;
  • memory or ability to concentrate, learn or understand; or
  • perception of the risk of physical danger.

The key is to provide a space with a good range of activities. These should provide a balance of ‘easier’ more accessible elements with those that are more challenging. (For a play space to be truly inclusive it must include the challenging items otherwise users looking for this will go elsewhere). It is recognised that it will never be possible, or desirable, for all users to access all equipment or other attractions.

As well as the children using the play space it is also important to consider the needs of parents or carers.

Also getting access to space itself, if not thought out, can sometimes be a barrier. Research has shown that it is often the route from the nearest parking place to the play space that is the greatest barrier to inclusion.

Read the entire report from API

*The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 is an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom which makes it unlawful to discriminate against people in respect of their disabilities in relation to employment, the provision of goods and services, education and transport. It is a civil rights law.

Here is my interpretation/recap of what the report from API says and what we as designers of playspaces should take into consideration:

  1. Children’s abilities, regardless of their diagnosis are vary diverse.
  2. When considering disability, remember that all disabilities are not physical.
  3. It is essential to think about all types of impairment (sensory, physical, communication etc)
  4. It is essential to bring people with disabilities, parents who are raising children with disabilities, children with disabilities and other stakeholders into the design process.
  5. Your playground should have a large variety of activities to attract children of all ages, heights and abilities as well as differing interests.
  6. There should provide a balance of ‘easier’ more accessible playground elements with those that are more challenging.
  7. If there are not playground elements that provide challenge, some children will go elsewhere, making the playground less inclusive or they will create their own challenge, making the playground more dangerous.
  8. It should be recognized that it will never be possible, or desirable, for all users (whether they have a disability or not) to access all equipment or other attractions.
  9. The needs of parents and other caregivers should  be taken into consideration when making design decisions.
  10. Getting to the playground can be a huge barrier in of itself and people must be able to negotiate their way through the playground using their usual means of mobility.

Inclusive University–Learn best practices in inclusion and accessibility

Become a Certified Inclusivity Assessor! Learn about best practices in inclusion and accessibility so that you can assess sites and facilities for physical, administrative, and programmatic inclusion. Help build a state-wide system that provides accurate and descriptive information about recreation places and spaces. Whether you are a person with a disability, family member, recreation provider, educator, student, or advocate, this training is for you!

Over the past 3 years, the NYS IRRC has provided Inclusion U training to over 800 people state-wide. The NYS IRRC is a resource and training center with a mission to promote and sustain participation by people of all abilities in inclusive recreation activities and resources. Inclusion U is a day-long training that teaches attendees the foundation and best practices of physical and social inclusion, and how to assess inclusivity using the Inclusivity Assessment Tool. At the completion of Inclusion U, participants become Certified Inclusivity Assessors and are qualified to complete assessments of recreation sites, facilities and programs.

Full-day Inclusion U trainings:

• Teach best practices in inclusion

• Certify attendees to use the Inclusivity Assessment Tool

• Empower attendees to make a positive difference!

Over 800 Certified Inclusivity Assessors across New York have worked to increase accessibility and inclusion. Whether it is a park, bowling alley, library, or boating pier, information collected during assessments is now available in an on-line database to assist people with disabilities better plan their recreation.

The next Inclusion U will be Thursday, August 26th from 8:00-4:30 PM at Margaret Lewis Norrie State Park 9 Old Post Road, Staatsburg, NY

Pre-registration is required. The cost of this training is $95.00 and includes the bound Inclusivity Tool Guide and tool kit. Payment can be made by checks payable to “The Research Foundation, SUNY Cortland.” Also, please write “NYSIRRC” in the memo line. Please submit to: New York State Inclusive Recreation Resource Center, SUNY Cortland, P.O. Box 2000, Cortland, NY 13045. If you have questions about the training or need any accommodations to participate, please contact Project Coordinator Laurie Penney McGee at (607)753-4833 or

Thanks to a special grant the first 12 Medicaid Service Coordinators who register for this training can attend Inclusion U for free. Once the free spots are filled, a limited number of additional MSC’s can attend for a reduced fee of $40.00. Please share this information with anyone who you feel may be interested in this training. Please contact if you have any questions or would like to register. You can also visit the website at to learn more about other Inclusion U trainings around New York.

Choosing the Right Surfacing

It is the surfacing the makes or breaks an accessible playground. When designing a playground, you are faced with many options for surfacing, each has their own benefits. However, you only have a few choices if you want a truly usable playground for children of all abilities.

Here are the questions your playground committee needs to ask:

  • What can we afford?
  • Do we have the staff to conduct daily maintenance so we are ensured the surfacing is safe?
  • How are we going to meet ADA?
  • Do we want children of all abilities to be able to interact and play on the playground with their peers?

The first thing you must know is that you may NOT use asphalt, grass, concrete or soil as surfacing underneath a playground. These surfacing types do not meet safety guidelines.

There are two other general categories of surfacing: loose fill or synthetic material.

Loose Fill

All loose fill surfacing requires daily raking to maintain the required depth of the material that ensure the safety of children. They also require replenishment as it gets packed down or kicked away.  Often this type of maintenance does not occur creating unsafe playgrounds. In addition, loose fill is often tracked into buildings requiring additional maintenance indoors.
Below are the different types of loose fill:

Pea gravel, sand and wood chips are loose-fill but do not meet ADA. However, you can use other surfacing to create paths to the entry point of the play equipment and it will enable your playground to meet the requirements.

The disadvantages of pea gravel is that you cannot use this material if your playground is higher than 6′. Also daycare providers have reported that peas gravel fits well in a nostril or an ear, which can result in a visit to the doctor or emergency room to remove.

Sand is one of the easiest products to maintain. You just need to level out the sand if it gets windswept. Children love to play in sand which is both a pro and a con. Cats can use the sand as a liter box. If a bottle get broken in the sand, it will be difficult to remove.

Wood Chips are different from Engineered Wood Fiber, which do meet ADA. Parents have reported they won’t go to playgrounds with wood chips or wood fiber because their children are too likely to put it in their mouths.

The loose-fill surfacing that meets ADA are Shredded Rubber and Engineered Wood Fiber.

You do not need to use other surfacing to create paths. However, there is a difference between ADA regulations and a child using a wheelchair being able to play on the playground. It is extremely difficult if not impossible to push or wheel a wheelchair through either of these surfaces.

The benefits to these two surfaces are in the cost. They meet ADA and are cost efficient. That is why these are the surfaces you see the most often.

Fully Accessible Surfaces

The surfaces that are universally accessible and go beyond ADA to be actually usable for children with disabilities include Pour-in-Place, Rubber mats/tiles, and artificial grass with rubber underneath. The benefits to these surfaces besides the accessibility are the maintenance. You do not need to do daily maintenance to ensure that safety is maintained. There may be times you need to patch areas or sweep it off, but overall there is very little work to do be done.

Playgrounds that use one of these types of surfacing are the only ones that are included in the directory.

The problem with these surfaces is the cost. They cost significantly more than loose filled surfacing; however they are your only true choice if you want all children to be able to play on your playground.