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August 30, 2018

How playgrounds make all children feel welcome

  • Features like playful pathways and “dynamic refuges” give kids with disabilities more ways to play and socialize.



    As the demands on our young people continue to grow and change, the educational environment has evolved in almost every way imaginable. Today’s schools teach more than the three Rs — they emphasize student engagement among peers, with their environment and with their community to foster citizens of the world.

    Design has evolved to keep pace, and now school districts are seeking ways to maximize the value of every aspect of the student experience. Playgrounds — once thought to be a distraction or break from education — are now understood to hold great potential in teaching intangible lessons such as socialization, imagination, community-building and hands-on learning.

    But it is imperative then that these spaces are accessible and inclusive of all students, affording the same value to children regardless of physical or cognitive ability. Site-accessibility goals have moved beyond a formulaic approach to ramps, railings and walkway widths into the realm of true inclusiveness.

    Inclusive features

    AHBL’s landscape architects have embraced the movement toward inclusive, accessible spaces and developed a number of guidelines for achieving this goal.

    While every project is unique, there are a number of common requirements that must be present for a play area to be considered truly beneficial to students. Among these are features that encourage imagination, concentration, physical development, stress reduction and social learning.

    Moreover, these spaces must account for the needs of all students — including those with cognitive disabilities such as autism, and physical limitations such as wheelchairs or limited mobility. Ideally, these outdoor areas also include natural play areas and are designed to allow unstructured activity.

    Photo by Benjamin Benschneider [enlarge]
    A low-barrier play area at Arlington Elementary in Tacoma.

    As students grow, these features adapt with them and allow for play and socialization in new ways, thereby maintaining their value to school districts.

    Physical accessibility and inclusiveness are often the most easily understood, yet nuanced, requirements of modern play areas. Students who are limited in their mobility benefit equally from the stimulus of outdoor play and socialization. However, traditional playgrounds often lack the forethought to allow their participation.

    Playground equipment, steep slopes, stairs and even the surface medium (gravel, mulch, or otherwise) create barriers to inclusion. Even when ramps and other access points are built, they are often an afterthought, further isolating disabled students.

    Playful pathways

    AHBL has been mindful of this, and seeks opportunities to plan these features into the center of student activity.

    At Arlington Elementary School in Tacoma, this resulted in the creation of assets designed for students of every physical level. Locally sourced logs form a play area that encourages creative interaction and is approachable from every angle.

    The surface medium was selected to support wheelchairs, and there are ramps and pathways around the entire playground, ensuring students have equal access to the entire site. Pathways that playfully traverse the hillside meet Americans with Disabilities Act guidelines but appear to the casual observer as the primary, intentional route of travel for any student moving between the playground and the school.

    Similarly, ramps and access points at nearby Stewart Middle School were incorporated into an amphitheater and social space, removing the stigma of ramps and encouraging a mixture of play and socialization. While traditional playground equipment is present on site, the emphasis has been shifted to these more inclusive areas, garnering an appreciation for spaces where all are represented.

    Self-paced participation

    While the challenges of physical access are wide-ranging, addressing students with cognitive needs is a much broader undertaking.

    Autism in particular presents a large challenge to school districts. While reports vary, there is an undeniable uptick in autism and developmentally disabled students. Rather than isolating these children, modern school administrators emphasize inclusion to allow for social adaptation and the benefits of peer-to-peer learning. However, it is important these students are protected from the overwhelming nature of the playground and allowed to participate at their own pace.

    AHBL designers have examined every element of the playground experience to develop strategies which enable students with cognitive disabilities, rather than overwhelm them. Among the most important of these strategies is the development of a sense of prospect. When entering the play area, students are presented with several sightlines — perspectives from which to take in their entire environment. These places of prospect allow children to process their surroundings and make choices to match their comfort level. If they then prefer to avoid more active areas, students may proceed to quieter areas on site, but will also have created a mental map of the whole playground should they decide to venture into more active areas after getting settled.

    Sensory opportunities such as the water feature at Arlington Elementary provide the chance to engage students in a peaceful manner that activates multiple senses. Children can listen to the falling water, feel it on their feet and hands, and watch as it drains away. This experience, while simple, can have dramatic effect on the happiness and cognitive function of a student.

    Other design interventions are more subtle. During a student-focused early design workshop held by Mahlum Architects in preparation for the Arlington project, the design team heard from more than one student that their favorite place on their current playground was a small stairwell that was slightly perched above the most active part of the playground.

    The designers realized that these students were experiencing a concept known as dynamic refuge. Being in a defensible space that is directly adjacent to highly active areas can provide a place of comfort for students who wish to feel part of the group, but who may not be comfortable in the center of the action. Furthermore, having a safe space to retreat to can give students — especially those with cognitive disabilities like autism — the confidence to participate directly as their comfort levels grow.

    At Arlington, this takes the form of a log semicircle adjacent to active play areas, but removed from active pathways and courts. At Stewart Middle School, students can find shade, seating and sightlines near the basketball courts, but out of the hustle and bustle.

    This balance between peaceful refuge and adjacent activity ensures students are protected but not excluded.

    Benefits for everyone

    Perhaps the largest obstacle in integrating accessibility and inclusion into playgrounds in the future will be overcoming the notion that these design features are a burden to school districts. There are some who may claim these features only benefit a small portion of students to the detriment of traditionally abled students. In reality, inclusion is not a zero-sum game; these modifications to transitional ways of thinking benefit every student of every cognitive and physical level.

    Interaction and socialization thrives when the arena is open to all. Today’s students will learn what they have in common with their classmates, not what makes them different.

    Jason Morse is a principal and the director of landscape architecture for AHBL. James Stuart is a marketing coordinator with AHBL.

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