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Why Every Park Should Have Accessible Playgrounds

A child should never have to sit on the sidelines, watching siblings or friends play. Mobility differences shouldn’t diminish the chance for a child to bond with others, enjoy fresh air, and participate in activities with peers their age. For children with mobility differences, there are often barriers to being a part of the activity when it comes to playgrounds. Stairs, narrow passageways, and slippery surfaces may not provide access to features on the playground or won’t be possible for all children to use. Building accessible playgrounds adds options that accommodate children using walking devices or wheelchairs so that they aren’t excluded from enjoying what the playground has to offer. While playgrounds with accessible features are becoming more common, there is still a long way to go before there is universal access. 

Are There Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) Requirements for Playgrounds?

The ADA does provide some regulations around what accessible playgrounds must include if the structure was built after March 15, 2012. The 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design provide guidelines for ensuring playgrounds provide an equal chance for children ages 2 and above to participate. This includes:

  1. An accessible path from the building or parking lot to the edge of the play area, such as a wheelchair ramp.
  2. An accessible path from the edge of the play area to the play equipment, which includes minimum height clearances.
  3. Specific slope angles for ramps that are present to access elevated play structures to make them easy to propel a wheelchair up or down.
  4. Handrails at certain heights and in specific locations.
  5. Minimum heights on play tables to allow for a child in a wheelchair to comfortably sit at the table without hitting their legs.
  6. Surfacing within the regulations of the Standard Specification for Determination of Accessibility of Surface Systems Under and Around Playground Equipment; this is the determination of what materials a wheelchair can realistically be propelled across.
  7. Transferring platforms for children to get onto the playground structure or be able to move their mobility device directly onto the structure, such as through an accessible ramp.

While the regulations provide a groundwork, they do not require older playgrounds to have these accommodations, nor do they require substantive additions of play features that are wholly inclusive. A truly inclusive, accessible playground goes beyond the typical structures to include ground-level elements, social spaces, and alternative styles of swings that accommodate different needs and bodies. They surpass the minimums by accounting for both physical and non-physical differences that children may have in their ability or preferences to play. 

What Accessible Playgrounds Can Look Like

There are a handful of playgrounds around the country that have truly embraced accessibility, going above and beyond to create a fun space that invites children of all abilities. They all feature common elements in abundance:

  • Easy-to-navigate surfaces: While the ADA does have a requirement around the types of surfaces present, some materials like mulch that fall within that requirement may not be as accessible as others. Instead, the best accessible playgrounds will leverage a rubber that is firm enough to easily wheel or walk across but has some give in case of a fall. Careful consideration of how easy and safe it would be to walk or wheel across the ground should be a part of playground development. 
  • Ground-level structures: The more items there are near ground level, the more play options there are for a child unable to climb. One example is the merry-go-round, which is typically several inches off the ground. This could be impossible to get on and enjoy for some children; however, having one that is level with the ground provides the opportunity for them to play on something previously inaccessible. The Hope D. Wall School Playground in Aurora, Illinois, installed one, bringing joy to children and their parents. These small changes, which may not seem like much, make all the difference in providing playground accessibility. Adding other ground-level structures like interactive musical equipment or imaginative shelters gives added opportunity for play without requiring an elevation change. 
  • Wheelchair-accessible equipment: Companies are producing playground equipment that allows a child to roll their wheelchair directly onto the attraction. From gliders to elevated structures with ramps and wide pathways, the structures are built to encourage play that doesn’t require the child to transfer out of their wheelchair. These innovative creations aim to include children with mobility devices as well as those without, giving them a chance for interactive play. 
  • Social spaces: Think of these as imagination-prompting structures like a playhouse, spaceship, or pirate’s boat. It’s an area where children can interact and enjoy without being limited by equipment they might not be able to use. It encourages socialization and play of a different type, providing options for children with different interests. For children sensitive to motion who don’t enjoy swings or rotating items like merry-go-rounds, these alternatives still give them a chance to enjoy themselves. 

Why Are Accessible Playgrounds Important?

  • Social Benefits: When a playground creates an environment of inclusion, more children can participate. The variety of individuals present in a playground creates exposure to those who might be different. It enables them to become more well-rounded and have a better understanding of how no two people are the same. These playgrounds provide the chance for children with limited mobility to interact with their siblings and friends on a level playing field, allowing them to be equals and not feel different from anyone else. 
  • Self-Esteem: Accessible playgrounds encourage children to join in on activities where they can build confidence in their abilities. It provides them with places to test their limits, prove what they can do, and develop friendships that boost their self-confidence. Instead of feeling limited or left out, they’re able to learn how capable they are and create positive relationships that grow how they see their own abilities. It is an opportunity to see themselves as able when a traditional playground may make them feel the opposite. 
  • Physical Skills: Play provides the chance for physical growth and development. Accessible playgrounds allow motor skills to improve; when a child can attempt different activities and movements, it's a stimulus to help develop necessary strength, stability, and movements that will carry over to other aspects of life. Research has demonstrated that children who participate in playground activities tend to develop better gross motor skills. It’s also the opportunity to burn off energy and enjoy fresh air, which every child needs, no matter their mobility. 
  • Cognitive Skills: The problem-solving that comes along as part of playing is another benefit of an accessible playground. Kids may encounter parts of the playground they aren’t sure how to use, and they have the chance to figure it out as they go. As children explore, they also develop their imagination, and playgrounds are shown to encourage creativity. Their exploration of the playground allows for unlimited possibilities, with the benefits of sensory development along with language skills that get used through interactions around the space. 

How Are Accessible Playgrounds Made?

There are several companies pioneering the way through the production of playground equipment that accommodates different abilities. They have spent years researching and developing accessible playground equipment that considers how to be inclusive of all children. From updating common structures like swings to creating entirely new ideas like wheelchair-accessible gliders, they have begun to revolutionize what a playground can look like. Cities around the United States are embracing this equipment, though the transition is slow. One barrier includes financial constraints, as there may not be the budget to update older parks. Some organizations are providing financial assistance through grants to help overcome the costs of fitting a playground with accessible equipment. 

Another barrier is a lack of awareness. While planning a playground, the builders may know about the ADA requirements but may not realize those minimums fall short of creating a fully accessible space. A play space designer who specializes in creating inclusive playgrounds can help plan how to best provide accessibility within a playground and will have a better awareness of what is available and possible than someone outside the specialty. 

Our Passion for a World Without Barriers

At EZ-ACCESS®, our mission is to create a world where mobility barriers are a thing of the past. While our focus is on accessibility ramps and bathing equipment, we champion accessibility in all its forms. We highlight any chance for creating inclusive environments, especially when it comes to enabling children with limited mobility to live in a world alongside their peers. Our aluminum ramps help families explore the world, whether it’s a residential ramp that helps with home access, a portable wheelchair ramp that helps provide temporary access when visiting, or a commercial ramp that provides a path to a playground. Looking to find additional access solutions to complement your playground? Reach out to the EZ-ACCESS Customer Service team to see how our customized access solutions can meet your needs.

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