Rethinking Accessible Playgrounds

Ensuring universal accessibility and inclusive play at local playgrounds is a hot topic right now among many of my friends whose children have cerebral palsy. It’s summer time, and parents and children naturally want to go to playgrounds. These visits often reveal accessibility concerns and lead to conversations about how few recreation offerings there are for kids with physical limitations. I feel very passionate about this issue since we have struggled to find and create inclusive activities for Maya. Very often we have encountered a broad array of social activities for children with social and/or intellectual disabilities but almost nothing for kids like Maya with physical limitations.

Just last week I had a meeting with a local organization that is working to improve recreation opportunities for people with special needs in our community. During this meeting we discussed the importance of getting feedback from a broad array of potential users and participants on a particular activity or space. One of the leaders of our local Parks and Recreation attended this meeting and he intently listened to me convey Maya’s experience of the accessible playground located next to his office. I shared the irony of her crying during a previous visit to this beautiful and very expensive accessible playground. Through tears she said to me, “I want to go home. There’s nothing here for me to do!” The gentleman from Parks and Recreation was clearly upset because he took great pride in this play space. Later we spoke privately, and he said he had a feeling the playground wasn’t getting as much use by wheelchair users as he had expected, but he didn’t know why.

It has taken me almost 6 years to figure out where the disconnects are between what my and Maya’s expectations are for a potential play space versus her experience in those spaces. I came to a couple of painful realizations:

1. Just because Maya can access a play space doesn’t mean she will have fun there.

2. She simply cannot keep up with her peers. She gets left behind as they run circles around her.

3. Just because a couple of playground equipment manufactures sell inclusive play equipment doesn’t mean the kids (both wheelchair users and kids without physical limitations) will think it’s fun and worth the tens of thousands of dollars to install it.

4. We can’t always rely on the place space alone to foster ongoing social interactions. I now see the need for bringing some simple play “props” to the playground.

5. No matter what the playground offers there are some days that watching children do so many of the things she cannot will upset her.

The few things that she can do at the playground mentioned in this meeting include turning a steering wheel, pounding on some plastic drums (that don’t make much noise without a lot of effort), and spinning letters. There is one swing that we can transfer her into but it has never fit her. When she was younger the head support was too tall, and now the seat doesn’t fit her. The other playground has a few play structures that are very elaborate including the Sway Fun Glider. This is a big-ticket item (approximately $14,000 installed) that can accommodate Maya’s wheelchair but it neither captured the attention of Maya nor her friends. In speaking with a local rep from one of the large playground equipment manufacturers, I understand that it is a tall order to wrap accessibility, safety, durability, and cost, all together.


Maybe the solution is to do a little rethinking about what an accessible playground should do. What is the intention and vision of the all of the parties involved? Traditional playgrounds are places for kids to run, climb, and play. In keeping with the theme of movement, accessible playgrounds mostly try to replicate the experience of running or climbing or swinging for children whose movements are limited. But because of all the devices and support that requires, sometimes they lose the most fun part: interactive play. I acknowledge that playgrounds and other activities can’t be all things to all people, but I think we can strike a better balance and perhaps foster more inclusive play once our children access the playground. In the past, people just didn’t know what would work. But now, it’s important to solicit feedback in the planning stages from actual users like Maya, rather than automatically purchasing the few big ticket items available on the market and assuming the playground will foster the inclusive play seen on the manufacturers’ websites.

Since our playground already exists, I am going to work with our Parks and Rec contact to make changes to improve the playground experience of wheelchair users. Of course Maya and I only offer one perspective. We also intend to include local therapists and other families as well. Meanwhile, I plan to bring a few activities and simple “props” to the accessible play spaces that Maya can enjoy with other children. Games as simple as bubble machines, bowling, and bocce ball would be great. Spray fountains are wonderful in the summer. Just yesterday I posted Maya having a blast at a local splash deck. Perhaps we could have a shaded game table like they have in some of our nation’s city parks. Even a simple low hanging net for wheelchair ball playing would mean a lot to her. That couldn’t cost an incredible amount.

Tremendous progress has been made in recognizing the need for accessible playgrounds.  I am grateful for all that has been done. Now that they exist in many places, it’s time to evaluate and improve them. I would like to begin collecting feedback from families around the country. Tell us about existing accessible playgrounds and which play structures and space designs are fun, inclusive, and worth the money. Tell us why you and your children think so and send us your photos.  By doing this we can potentially influence the playground equipment market and benefit from everyone’s experience before we fundraise and plan the next one.

Related posts and articles:

A lot of playgrounds can’t accommodate children with disabilities. A TEDx speaker is changing that. 

Accessible Playground Features I Love-By Julie at Have Wheelchair Will Travel

Livvi’s Place-Guest blog featuring Julie Jones from Have Wheelchair Will Travel. Her family used to avoid playgrounds but loves Livvi’s Place!