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 NCPAD Monographs
National Center on Physical Activity & Disability (NCPAD)
  Playgrounds for ALL Kids!

By Cindy Burkhour, MA, CTRS, CLP

Why should we make ALL playgrounds accessible to kids with disabilities?

It's the right thing to do!
... And, by the way, it's the law!

Play is important to the social and physical development of all children. Kids with disabilities have the same desires and needs to climb, rock, swing, slide, pretend, socialize, balance, build strength, test their abilities, spin, dig, splash, and have fun, just like kids who don't have disabilities. When kids with and without disabilities play together they learn to appreciate each others "abilities" and similarities. And just think about the impact on our world when these kids are the grown-ups in charge of life! How different our schools, neighborhoods, workplaces, and communities will be when each person is viewed as a unique individual and valued for what they can do. Inclusion in play activities today improves the quality of life for the child, their family, the community and other children who don't have disabilities.

This is a photo of an accessible playground with a sand surface.
Accessible playground with sand surface.
But, kids are not the only benefactors of accessible design in play areas. Parents who have disabilities need to be able to move around the playground in order to support and interact with their children as they play. Accessible routes in and around the play area also help parents without disabilities, particularly those who are pushing younger siblings in strollers. Accessible routes even make it easier for grandma's and grandpa's to get around the playground to support and play with their grandchildren. Good universal design is a benefit to many different grown-ups and kids alike!

Because kids with disabilities are included more and more in neighborhood schools and are choosing to be included in community recreation programs like summer playground programs, we need accessible play areas in order to welcome and effectively serve ALL kids. Removing the barriers to inclusive play on the playground will impact the lives today and in the future of kids with and without disabilities.

How do we do it? Plan for it up front!

Accessible design doesn't just happen by accident. It must be considered from the very beginning of the process of planning a playground. Sometimes it gets forgotten or ignored because maybe there aren't any kids with disabilities at the school right now or that currently live in the neighborhood. What people fail to consider is that at any moment any child or parent may acquire a disability. No one is exempt from joining this growing minority. Someday all of us will be affected by disability in some way. Someone we love or care about will have an accident that will leave them with a physical disability, or a child will be born into our family with a condition that affects their abilities to see or walk. Just because the need for accessibility isn't evident to us right now doesn't mean there won't ever be a need for playground access in the future.

The reality is, there are already kids with disabilities and their families in your community. Find out who they are and have a conversation with them about what might work best for them. Ask them what would make the playground useable and fun for them. You may be surprised to learn that kids with disabilities and their families have very similar expectations for play experiences to kids who don't have disabilities and their families. Safe, challenging, social, physical, imaginary, interactive, fun stuff to do!

Know the rules!

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) says all new and altered play areas will be accessible to and usable by people with disabilities. The ADA Accessibility Guidelines give the technical (what "it" will look like, how big, wide, high, far...) and scoping (how many, when, where...) provisions to make play areas accessible to and usable by kids with disabilities. Get a copy, read them and keep them close at hand as you move through the planning process to make sure you don't forget what must be done to comply with the rule. Be able to defend your ideas and designs within the parameters of these requirements, be able to show how the playground will be accessible to and useable by all kids. Go above and beyond the letter of the law to truly meeting the spirit and intent of the rules by creating fair and equitable opportunities for ALL kids.

Choose a variety of fun things to play!

Pick lots of different kinds of play components that give many options and choices and a wide variety of comparable experiences. Remember, some kids walk using assistive mobility devices like crutches, walkers or canes and others use wheelchairs to get around. Some kids who use wheelchairs can also walk, crawl, or scoot along when out of their chairs and there are some kids who can't get out of there chairs and move around without assistance from a grown-up or friend. Some kids who use walkers, crutches or canes choose not to abandon their assistive mobility device to crawl or scoot along on a play structure where other kids are walking. Some kids who use wheelchairs choose not to get out of their chair to crawl, drag or scoot along where others walk or climb.

Sometimes they don't have the strength or skills to move around unassisted, sometimes the experience they are trying to get to isn't worth the effort required to move around without assistance, and sometimes it just may not be "cool" to be crawling around where everybody else is walking and running around!

So, when you are picking play components look for activities that can be "experienced" while using a wheelchair or assistive mobility device. Pick things that kids can get to and do from a wheelchair. Pick ways to move ALL kids from one area or level to another in the same way maybe scootching through a crawl tube. Pick things that are physical and things that are social, things kids can do alone or with other kids. Choose opportunities to rock, spin, play interactive games, swing, slide, make sounds and music, balance, climb, dig, crawl, scoot, bounce... etc., etc. ..., you get the idea, lots of fun stuff! Remember too that kids with disabilities skills, interests, and preferences are as varied as any other kids. Don't assume "they" can, can't, or "want" to do certain things simply because they have a disability. Variety is encouraged to meet the broad scope of kid's interests and abilities and is specifically required for ground level play components. One of each type shall be accessible. If there are three spring rockers, one game panel, two swings, at least one rocker, one swing and the only game panel will be accessible. Variety is the key to universal design of playgrounds for ALL kids!

Look for play components that are user friendly.

So just what makes a play component usable by kids with a variety of skills and abilities you ask? Here are some things to consider when you are trying to choose accessible activities.

Rocking experiences:
Can kids get on it in different ways? Can they lay over or on it? Scoot from a wheelchair over onto it from the side or the end? Approach it from the end, straddle it and pull on to it? Can they pull up along side of the seat and then stand, swivel, and sit on it? Are there places or things to hang on to that would help a child to transfer on or to stay on to rock? Is the seat space free of obstructions like raised backs or sides that would get in the way of transferring from a wheelchair onto the rocker? Is the seat or sitting space large enough to support a child's body for stable sitting? Can the rocker be used alone and with others? Is the accessible rocker located near other rockers so kids have social interaction opportunities? Is there accessible surface up to the getting on/off space? And is there a route connected to the other accessible play components? There are some fun rockers out there that encourage cooperation and social interactions such as rockers with multiple seats, large rocking platforms that one or many kids can be on all at once and kids can sit, stand, kneel, or lay on the platform, what ever works best for them. Look for rocking play components that can be approached and used in a variety of ways.

Swinging experiences:
Are there swings that go in different directions such as the typical to and fro swing and tire type swings that are spinning and swinging? Are there glider types of swings or bench swings where two or more people can swing, maybe a parent and child with a disability, that can't sit on their own, could sit and swing together. Are there several seat options available? Are there the typical "fanny squeezers" (you know the kind we grown-ups all love, right?) and are there chair types with back support or net swings that give different kinds of support? Is there accessible surfacing that extends under the accessible swing seat making it possible for someone to approach and transfer on to the swing seat and move the assistive device out of the swings path? And is this accessible surfacing connected to the route of travel that connects to the other accessible play components at the playground? Look for variety in seating support as well as single and multiple user options.

Sliding experiences:
Kids like to slide on all kinds of slides. Can kids with disabilities get to the getting on place ? Are there several different kinds of the slides that are accessible, like short straight slides, high spiral slides, tube slides, double slides, wavy or bumpy slides? Do the accessible slides end in surfacing that is accessible and that is connected to the accessible route? Are slide exits situated on the structure to minimize the amount of space between the exit and where a child's assistive device was left? Is there an accessible route through the structure to reach the getting on point that kids can access through transfer systems or directly by ramp? Kids like to go up high and come down fast! Can ALL kids get to some kinds of unique sliding experiences? Once again variety is the key.

Climbing experiences:
There are several kinds of climbing play components that may be easier to use by kids with some physical limitations just by the way they are designed. Climbers that have a variety of grasping places and foot placements to hang on to or place feet and other body parts on to support the child's body weight as they climb up or down are good choices like the cork screw type or rock climbing wall type. Can kids get to the getting on and getting off place? Is there accessible surfacing at the getting off place that connects to the accessible route? Does the climber exit at a place that is near to the place were a child left their assistive device? Climbers are meant to be traversed either up or down, but remember there is more than one way to interact with and use a climber. Some kids may use it to pull up and stand from a wheelchair, they may guard the exit in a chase game so kids can't climb down it, they may go round and round the lower rim without ever leaving the ground.

and ... Other Play Experiences... Well, I think you get the idea of the kinds of questions you can ask about how kids use a play component that can guide us in our decisions to pick things that can be used in a variety of ways, that offer a variety of experiences. The over-riding theme here? VARIETY!

Choose play components with accessible designs.

We need to pick things that kids can approach use and exit independently. To be accessible to and usable by kids with a variety of "abilities" each accessible play component must meet a set of technical provisions dictating design parameters for the key dimensions which are critical to access.

Height of Play Components:
Things that are intended to be transferred on to in order to do such as slides, spring rockers or swings must be at a transferable height . The entry point or seat height must be a minimum of 11" and 24" maximum above the required clear ground or floor space making it easy for a child to get out of a wheelchair and onto the play component. This play component must also have a means of support for transfer such as hand holds or gripping surfaces to help a child move onto the play component.

Reach Ranges:
Manipulative and interactive features of accessible play components must be within the reach ranges of kids using wheelchairs. The things to manipulate, grasp, interact with need to be no higher (forward reach or to the side reach) than 36" and no lower than 20" for kids ages 2-5years old. On play components designed for use by kids ages 5 - 12 years old the reach range can be no higher (forward reach or to the side reach) than 40" and no lower than 18". This most often applies to game panels, sound walls, raised sand and/or water tables, pretend play props like store fronts that have things for kids to reach, touch, move or do with their hands. Kids need to be able to reach all parts of the play components such as tic-tac-toe, it's not accessible if the child can only reach the middle row of tiles, and by the way it's no fun either!

Maneuvering Space and Clear or Ground Space:
Also, in order to be considered accessible, a play component must have a maneuvering space (measuring 60"X60") and a clear floor or ground space (measuring 30"X48") provided at the getting on point and these spaces must be reachable from an accessible route. These spaces are intended to give enough room for kids using wheelchairs or other mobility assistive devices to approach and use the play component and to provide space for a child to leave their mobility device when they transfer onto a play component. These spaces are required to be on the same level as the accessible play component. In other words if the play component is approached used and exited from the ground these spaces are on the ground.

These spaces are required if a child can reach the elevated accessible play component directly by ramp. If the accessible play component is accessible by ramp and is approached, entered, or gotten on to from an elevated deck the space must be on the deck at the getting on spot. These spaces at each accessible play component allow room for kids to move around, approach, play with or transfer onto the play component and leave their wheelchair.

This space is especially important where kids are getting out of their wheelchair to go down the slide or crawl through a tube or go on a climber or track ride. These spaces are not required when the only way to get to an elevated, accessible play component is by transfer system. This means kids have gotten out of their wheelchair and left it on the ground level and have moved on to an elevated play structure using a transfer system (a series of platforms and steps) and moved (crawled, scootched, dragged, rolled...) to the entry point of the accessible play component without their wheelchair. Kids would be getting on to the accessible play component directly from the deck.

Accessible Route:
Accessible play components must be connected to an accessible route at both the entry and exit points. This is especially important to understand when kids traverse the play component. For example kids get on the slide from a deck on a play structure and get off the slide on the ground. If the child gets to the top of the slide by a ramp, transfers onto the slide leaving their chair on the deck and slides down to the ground the end of the slide has to connect to an accessible route so a child's wheelchair could be brought to them. If the slide ends in the "sea of sand," there is no way to get the child's walker or wheelchair to them.

If the child can't get off the slide back into his chair, then that sliding experience isn't really accessible to and usable by that child is it? The accessible route must be 60" wide, relatively level and free of obstacles that would get in the way of kids moving around the play area with an assistive device such as a wheelchair, walker, crutches, or canes. It must connect to all the accessible play components. There is an exception where some elevated accessible play components are allowed to be connected to the accessible route by a transfer system on a composite play structure, but the transfer system must be connected to the accessible route and the exit points on the ground for accessible elevated play components must be connected to the accessible route. This means that kids could transfer out of their wheelchairs onto a transfer platform (24" wide/14" deep/11"-18" high), scootch, crawl, climb... up transfer steps (24" wide/14" deep/8" high) to elevated decks with accessible play components, go down the slide, crawl through a tube, go down a climber, go across a track ride, and end up on another deck or on the ground and this exit point must be connected to an accessible route for that play component to be considered accessible. Whoa! Confused? Here's the trick if "it" (the play component) is accessible the kids have to be able to get to "it"/ on "it" /through "it /off "it"/ and back to where they got on it via an accessible route.

Oh, and by the way one more thing to address in relationship to the accessible route, where ever that route goes into the use zone (that's the danger area where kids might fall off play components) the route surface has to be not only accessible (firm and stable) but resilient to! Yup, that's right "cushy" so those "wild child" kids who jump off the swings don't break there... what ever's. We all want playgrounds to be safe for all kids and guess what there are lots of ways to accomplish safe and accessible. Some are easier to do than others and the cost is all over the map. Sometimes it comes down to "pay me now or pay me latter" when we are making surfacing decisions. Here are some of the issues you need to consider when you are considering how best to safely and accessibly surface your playground.

Some loose-fill materials just aren't accessible like sand and pea gravel and sometimes they don't even make very good safety surfaces in some environmental conditions. Other loose-fill materials like manufactured wood fibers must be installed properly with the appropriate sub-surface drainage system, geo-textile matting and compaction at installation to create accessible surface characteristics. An established procedure for ongoing maintenance to rake, roll, compact top surface material to maintain transfer heights at component exits and under swings where the loose fill material is kicked out of place or displaced from landing on exit and annual replenishment of material that has compacted or migrated out of the area are also required in order for these types of materials to maintain accessible characteristics. Loose-fill materials must also be contained by a border and this boarder must have more than one opening to allow accessible routes into the play area.

When there is a combination of loose fill and unitary surfaces used care must be taken to make sure there are not trip/tip hazards at the transition point between the two surfaces and so there are not changes of level greater than ˝" and where there are changes that the edges are beveled. And the loose-fill material needs to be kept cleaned off the unitary surface so it doesn't obstruct the accessible route.

There are new products being developed to contain and cover "cushy stuff" like recycled rubber to keep it in place and make it accessible with a unitary top mat. These new products require little ongoing up-keep and may last longer than loose-fills that aren't top-dressed with an accessible covering because they are contained and can't migrate or displace. Some of these products may be initially more costly than loose-fill but less costly than unitary rubber surfaces.

And then there are unitary manufactured rubber mats and poured-in-place rubber surfacing materials that may be more costly up front but require very little up-keep over time and may last longer. What it comes down to is some surfacing alternatives cost more up front but require little up-keep or maintenance and some cost less up front but have higher costs attached for replacement and maintenance.

So sometimes it comes down to a decision you need make whether to invest the money now or latter. You need to consider what is going to work best for you in your environment, with the staff you have to do what needs to be done. But the most important question to consider is how to make the most accessible choice for the kids you are going to serve so everyone is safe and everyone can play!

Watch out for... Oops...faux-paux's... and dah's!

If they say they are "ADA approved..." don't go there! They obviously don't know what they are talking about. There is no approval process to endorse particular products. The ADA is a law that provides design specifications that must be met or exceeded in order to ensure accessibility to kids with disabilities.

"We don't have any of those kinds of kids..."
Don't go there either! Communities and schools that feel they don't have to comply because they don't think they have any kids with disabilities to include don't get it either. Statistically upwards of 15% of the people in our communities have disabilities, in fact the opening line of the ADA says there are 43 million Americans with disabilities and that was ten years ago, in 1990, when the law passed! And remember no one is exempt from acquiring a disability!

Don't you believe it...
" If "they" tell you that you don't have to do anything yet because the rule isn't final and therefore not enforceable- don't you believe it! Even in the absence of the final rule to guide design you are still under an obligation to make it accessible to and usable by kids with disabilities. There have been several examples where those settling complaints have made it clear that you are obligated to use the most current information available to create accessibility and that would be the proposed rule (which, by the way, is due to become final momentarily!) Know one is exempt! Do it and do it well!

Money, Money, Money…
"It" is too costly just isn't true if you plan up front for access and if you realize that the accessibility features make the whole play environment easier to use by everyone, especially parents with little ones in strollers, grandma's and grandpa's and parents who have disabilities.

Marketing mistakes to watch out for…

    - Empty wheelchairs without kids in them or kids in hospital issue/too big wheelchairs on structures without ramps or ways the child could have gotten there.

    - Ramps to platforms or decks with nothing to do and nowhere else to go but back.

    - Raised loose-fill surface boarders with no accessible route into the play area.

    - No accessible surface shown at the exit points of play components where kids have left an assistive device and traversed and gotten off at a different location.

    - No connection from the getting off point to the accessible route that would take the child back to an assistive device or allowing for a friend or parent to bring the wheelchair or device to the child.

    - Accessible stuff to do only in the tot lot where it is lower and can be reached by little kids or kids using wheelchairs (this is unacceptable segregation by reach range limitations!)

So what really makes a playground useable by a variety of kids?

This is a photo of an accessible playground which provides options for children to use while sitting in a wheelchair.
Accessible playground which provides options for children to use while sitting in a wheelchair.
Easy to negotiate accessible routes throughout the entire play area including a "to-on-through-off-back" loop from the exit points of activities back to the transfer point where a wheelchair or assistive device was left. Or better yet, safe and accessible surface everywhere so ALL kids can go everywhere in the play area all the time!

Lots of different options and choices to use while seated in a wheelchair including interactive manipulatives, social play props, individual and partner games, communication activities, music, sand and water play, and activities using strength, flexibility, balance and creativity . Play structures that are accessible by transfer systems and ramps so that kids who choose not to or can't get out of their wheelchairs can get to and do an equitable number and variety of play opportunities. Many, many different, fun things to do that ALL kids can use.

And how can I tell?

Always analyze the big picture! Always ask the planner or designer defend their designs! Here are some ideas to know what to look for in a good play area design. Ask the designer or planner to show these key components of playground accessibility.

    -Is there a do-able accessible route "to-on-through-off-back" each accessible play component? If so, show it on the drawing or plan view.

    - Is there an equitable number and variety of experiences for all kids? If so, show which one (or more) of each type of ground level components is accessible and identify which elevated ones are accessible, describe how they meet the criteria, and how kids get to them.

    - Identify the things to do for kids who can't, or choose not to, get out of their wheelchair.

    - Identify the accessible activities that are physical and the ones that are social and identify the equity of opportunities both elevated and ground level.

    - Identify how the design of individual play components and there placement in the layout of the structure meet the technical and scoping provisions of the rule.

    - Ask them to sign an agreement that they guarantee that they have complied with the ADA and if found not to be that they will correct the problems.

What's next?

Soon these design standards to ensure the accessibility of all newly constructed and altered playgrounds will be made final. But our work as parents of children with disabilities and advocates doesn't end there, it only begins. We need to work closely with manufacturers and designers to help them create playgrounds that not only meet the letter of the law but meet spirit and intent of the law to support the inclusion of kids with disabilities. We need to help people responsible for providing playgrounds learn to make accessibility a primary consideration in the planning process and not an after thought. We need to help others realize and believe it's the right thing to do for ALL kids. We need to be pro-active by volunteering on playground committees at our children's schools and at our community parks. We can make a difference in the future. Ending segregation on the playground will open the doors to social and recreation inclusion for ALL kids!

For a copy of the Proposed Rule on Accessibility Guidelines for Play Facilities contact the Access Board at (202) 272-5434 or visit their website at www.access-board.gov

About the Author

Cindy Burkhour, MA, CTRS, CLP has consulted with municipal, county, and state agencies as well as school districts, private industries and advocacy organizations throughout the country. She is the Chair of the Leisure and Recreation Committee of TASH. She has also served on the U.S. Access Board Regulatory Committees on Access to Play Facilities and Access to Outdoor Developed Areas. She has written several resource guides including "Access Recreation: Creating Access to Community Recreation Opportunities for ALL Kids!" for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

About this Article

This article was edited for the National Center on Physical Activity and Disability, a collaborative project of the National Center on Accessibility, the University of Illinois at Chicago and the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. NCPAD is headquartered at the Department of Disability and Human Development, University of Illinois at Chicago,1640 West Roosevelt Road, Chicago, IL 60608-6904. NCPAD is funded by the Secondary Conditions Prevention Branch, Office on Disability and Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. www.ncpad.org


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