Inclusive Play Community Series: Understanding Inclusive Play Spaces
"Appropriate design recognizes that a child with a disability is a child with abilities!"
Play is very much a social process and the opportunity to be included should be available to every child. Often, planning efforts related to mobility impairments overshadow the necessity for a more comprehensive approach focused on understanding children with disabilities and understanding developmentally appropriate levels of risk.
Understanding Children With Disabilities: Children with disabilities are part of our nation's largest minority group, individuals with disabilities. Out of 1,000 children between the ages of 3 and 21 years old, 89 children will have a disability (8.9%). Of these, approximately 1 child (1.1%) will have a physical disability, 1 child (1.1%) will have a sensory disability, 17 children (19.1%) will have a communicative disability, 10 children (11.2%) will have a social/emotional disability, and 48 children (53.9%) will have an intellectual disability. Additionally, 2 children (2.2%) will have multiple disabilities and 9 children (10.1%) will have a chronic health impairment such as cancer.1
Disability is often mistakenly understood as a child's inability to experience the play environment because of limitations from their impairment. Defining disability in this way usually results in efforts to fix the child's impairment, rather than the play environment.
Disability is better recognized as a child's inability to experience the play environment because of very specific requirements on the part of the environment in order to participate. Disability results from differences in what a child is able to do, and what the play environment requires the child to be able to do. When disability is recognized as a result of the abilities required by the play environment, the focus becomes adapting the environment to accommodate the diverse abilities of children, which is the way that thoughtful design should be approached.
The abilities often demanded by play environments require children with disabilities to participate in play through the assistance of others or much greater personal efforts that place them at a disadvantage with their peers. The child's right to equality of opportunity, full participation, and independence in play implies the promise that children should not be subjected to inequality by characteristics over which they have no control. The failure to consider the needs of children with disabilities in the development of play environments produces environments incompatible with the child's right to play. Those who create play environments must recognize that the design of the play environment is much more than a problem of complying with accessibility standards, but rather a statement of how much we value children with disabilities as full participants in play.
Socially inclusive play environments are based on this understanding of disability where the emphasis is not on helping the child with a disability to adjust and accept the play environment, but rather designing the play environment to accommodate the abilities of the child and their right to an equal, independent, full participation in play.
Opportunities for Risk: A critical feature of any effective play space is the opportunity for the child to take risk. Taking risks, or to try something new, speak to someone new, or think something new, is necessary for children's development. The development of children starts at birth and continues into adulthood. Children need to develop in five crucial areas for proper growth: social/emotional, intellectual, sensory, perceptual-motor, and physical development. All children, regardless of their abilities, pass through the same developmental stages in the same sequence; only the timing and rate vary. It is important to understand that a child with disability is a child, and in reality, the similarities between children with and without disabilities are far greater than any differences.2 Opportunities to take risks and be challenged should not be absent from play environments for children with disabilities. The opposite is actually true. Equality of play opportunity, full participation in play, and the independence of the child mean allowing children with disabilities the Dignity of Risk.
Overprotection of children with disabilities is often an issue that must be overcome in traditional play spaces. At first, the protection of a child with disabilities may appear to be kind, but it can strip children of the right to play equally and independently. There is healthy development in risk taking and crippling indignity in overprotection.3
When planning or designing playgrounds, remember that a comprehensive approach based on knowledge of the needs of children with disabilities, including risk for differing levels of abilities will improve the success of playgrounds and lead to well used spaces enjoyed by children of ALL abilities.
If you are interested in learning more about socially inclusive playgrounds, please contact us at 209-571-1765 or e-mail us at [email protected]