Universally Designed Playgrounds

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Across America, in order to play in a park, a person doesn’t have to be rich, nor poor; a boy, or a girl; religious, or atheist; young, or old; from a married couple or a single parent; or, of a particular race. The reality is that across America – twenty-three years after the enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990 – in order to play in most parks, a person just has to be … able-bodied. What?

Since the approval of the ADA, the concept of prescriptive design, accessible design, and universal design standards has greatly evolved in an attempt to make parks accessible to all. Yet, the majority of neighborhood parks are not yet inclusionary for all abilities.

The quest for open spaces and inclusive play areas for all

It’s a spring day, and a group of children has gathered at a neighborhood park to play with friends and expend pent-up energy. It’s a common sight in any community in the United States – public parks are as American as apple pie and Chevrolets. It’s THE place where kids can play, friendships blossom, and memories are created. A place where kids can be kids, in all it’s wonderful, natural splendor.

The outdoor playscape is an important setting for development and age-appropriate activities; for physical exercise and cognitive growth; but perhaps more importantly, it’s just plain fun. Playgrounds allow children to play with and alongside others, run and jump, climb and swing, leap and crawl, yell and whisper, and conquer and reign.

When we think of parks, we tend to focus on how much fun children will have and how safe the equipment is for the majority of children. But, all too often accessibility and inclusion of children with disabilities is an afterthought, even more than two decades after the ADA enacted provisions for newly-constructed or reconceived parks. When it comes to accessibility, participation and inclusion, of all the protected discriminatory forms – sex, race, color, religion, income, marital status, and disability – accommodating for disability is not always a part of the playscape environment.

Child’s play is not always just for fun and games. Play is an essential component in the development of the brain, body and intellect for all children. Playgrounds, by their very nature, are grounds in which to play. All children require a safe environment in which to foster growth and development. A playground gives them the space, the equipment, and the opportunity to engage, interact and bond with other children.

For a child with a disability – as in a physical impairment such as Cerebral Palsy which hampers mobility, a neurodevelopment disorder like autism which affects socialization, or a genetic disorder like Down’s syndrome which delays developmental milestones – accessibility at a park is not only about child’s play, interaction and fun, it’s therapeutic.

The opportunity to play and explore provides all children the ability to learn about likeness and differences, acceptance and understanding, and compassion and socialization in a way that can’t be taught in the classroom, at home, or in the doctor’s office. This form of fun and play will have lifetime effects.

An afternoon at the park should provide the same fun and opportunities to all children, no matter their abilities. Some claim there is added expense in creating universally designed parks; while others argue there is a larger cost to society – and to children both with and without disabilities – that can no longer be tolerated. All one has to do is view a child in a wheelchair that is benched off to the sidelines watching other children play to realize the true cost of outdated technology. Likewise, experiencing children of all abilities playing together, without inhibition or a care in the world, allows us to understand the magnitude of opportunity that abounds. There is much society can learn from innocent children playing in inclusionary parks.

Not convinced? Take a moment to watch “Shane’s Inspiration,”, a beautiful video that explains the concept born from the memory of little Shane Alexander Williams whose legacy lives on in the laughter of the children blessed to play in the special playgrounds the foundation creates in his name. The mission is rather simple – to unite children of all abilities. It is possible.

Universally designed parks shouldn’t be a chore, an aberration, an after-thought, or an item on a wish. It should be a reality. One gets the impression that with some community leadership, a few calls to the planning department, playscape manufacturers, a few prominent and area businesses, and a crew of volunteers more communities could have such parks – in as little as a year. Need proof? Watch this two-minute video of how the FrancesAcres Community Playground in Sharonville, Ohio, was updated in one day. The parks department, a Target sponsor and about 30 volunteers completed the project in one amazing day, after a few months of careful planning.

But too often, because there are still too many pre-1990 parks, and because parks officials may not have a clear understanding of what works for children with disabilities at a park, and because parks are being updated without compliance to the ADA standards, a child with special needs may be on the sidelines and cut-off from a vital source of socialization and recreation – and the rest of society is non-the-better for it.

What is a universally accessible play environment?

Even though many parks remain maddeningly inaccessible to children with disabilities, the approval of the ADA by the U.S. Congress ushered in a new sensibility regarding the evolution of parks and playgrounds. Since then, the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board, or Access Board, developed the “Summary of Accessibility Guidelines for Play Areas” as a supplement to the Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG). In addition, the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) provides standard specifications for playground equipment.

Accessibility Guidelines, enforceable by the Department of Justice, serve to establish minimum accessibility requirements for play areas covered by the Architectural Barriers Act (ABA), namely newly constructed and altered play areas, so children with all abilities are able to access the myriad of play area components. Play areas include parks, schools, childcare facilities, shopping centers, and public gathering areas.

Although the definition of the accessible play environment seems straightforward, in actual practice, parks and playgrounds that claim to be accessible look vastly different. The ADA requires park operators, when physical changes or improvements are implemented, to make sure those changes are compliant and fully accessible.

But, accessible doesn’t always mean usable. An accessible park may include accessible parking, restrooms and walkways. Prescriptive design provides a piece of equipment as a remedy for a small user group, such as a wheelchair platform swing for children with Cerebral Palsy, smaller handrails for a child with Down’s Syndrome, or metal slides for a child with Cochlear implants. These singular components can be costly.

Universal design standards, on the other hand, mean inclusionary play areas for children of all abilities. The cost of updating a whole playscape has economy of scale, especially when the cost to society of not having inclusionary playgrounds is factored in. Beautiful parks attract residents and businesses, and enhances property values. They fight bight, crime and juvenile delinquency. But, perhaps most of all, they lend quality of life to society, as a whole.

The concept of a universally accessible play environment is one that not only meets ADA requirements; it means an environment that is designed for all children of all abilities and their families. Unlike the parks of the past, universally designed playgrounds provide for the developmental needs of the whole child (every child) – physical, cognitive, communicative, social/emotional, and sensory.

Universally and inclusively designed playground environments are fast becoming the hybrid of parks – projects of distinction – desired not only by families with children who have disabilities, but for community enhancement, overall.

If a parent wonders why the park is so appealing to a child with disabilities, the answer is simple. A child with special needs has the same desire for play, recreation, bonding and companionship as other children.

The beautiful colors and fun nature of these inclusive playscapes creates a magnetic atmosphere where all children play alongside and with each other. In this sense, playgrounds are capable of creating acceptance in a way society has not yet evolved into. Perhaps, this suggests, parks – as simple as that seems – can become the impetus of a larger societal change – carrying over to acceptance and understanding in school, in community, and in the workplace.

Accessibility guidelines include:

  • separating play areas for different age groups, not abilities.
  • equal access to play components, whether manufactured or natural, or stand alone or attached. They include swings, spring riders, water tables, playhouses, crawl-tubes, slides, climbers, bubble panels, steering wheels, tic-tac-toe panels, and more. Types of play components refer to the type of play experience the component provides, including rocking, swinging, climbing, spinning, and sliding.
  • grouping all ground-level play components together for all children’s abilities to foster interaction and socialization among all children.
    standards for elevated play components standard.
  • ramp access to at least 50 percent of the elevated play components and connectivity to other elevated play components.
  • landing requirements for level surfaces at the top and bottom of each ramp
  • transfer system standards to include transfer platforms, transfer steps, and transfer supports.
  • requirements for wheelchair turning space.
  • guidelines for maneuvering space.
  • standards for accessible routes for access by wheelchair and mobility devices.
  • restrictions on ground level components that protrude into accessible routes.
  • reach ranges to accommodate a child’s ability to reasonably extend their arm or hand to touch, manipulate, move or interact with an object or play component, especially for children in wheelchairs or using mobility devices. Rail width requirements to accommodate smaller grips.
  • standards for ground surfaces along accessible routes, clear floor or ground spaces, and maneuvering spaces. Surfaces must be inspected and maintained regularly and frequently dependent upon use and for compliance.
  • play table specifications for surfaces, boards, slabs or counters that exist for play with sand, water, to gather or to perform other activities.

For specific standards, visit A Summary of Accessibility Guidelines for Play Areas.

Designers are encouraged to exceed guidelines where possible, particularly in layout, circulation paths and selection of play components to the playground.

It is no secret that beautifully designed, and well-maintained park settings, attract and retain residents and businesses, increase property values, create community, promote stable neighborhoods, and reduce crime and juvenile delinquency.

What play areas are impacted?

If a park was constructed prior to 1992, the ADA mandated that all physical barriers be removed. That, however, does not necessarily guarantee that a park is accessible in a meaningful way. Often, it means a singular play component was added to a park, or a wheelchair can access paths to a playscape, but the child may still be unable to truly participate with other children.

In many communities, however, parks have undergone extensive makeovers. Routes and paths have been appropriately raised or lowered for wheelchair access, the slope of the land has been adjusted so surfaces are not too steep to navigate, and handrails have been installed along paths.

Play equipment, such as swings, slides, and playscapes are also transformed. Transfer steps and supports have been added to help children move from a wheelchair or walker to spacious platforms, and entry points have been simplified and sized appropriately for children that use adaptive equipment. Seats have been tightly secured to equipment and have belts. Grips that help children use their upper body to navigate a playscape are within reach. Ramps provide another opportunity for safe, easy access on, and off of, a playscape.

Other unique additions have also been made to accessible parks, such as noisemakers and tactile flora and fauna to stimulate the senses of children that may struggle with sensory issues.

An ideal scenario for families that include a child with disabilities occurs when a park exceeds the requirements of the ADA law because it allows that child to play with other children – with or without disabilities. But because municipal governments – cities, townships, villages, counties, states and school districts – have limited funds, expensive revisions to parks are too often far and few between. Luckily, concerned parents, business contributors, playscape manufacturers, involved non-profits, and community volunteers are creatively finding ways to make inclusionary playgrounds more affordable.

What if my park is unsuitable?

Because disability is wide in scope, parents should realize that every piece of equipment at an accessible park may not be usable by every child.

Generally, a community’s website will have information about a park’s accessibility. The best, and most immediate way, to approach park play is to visit a local park to see if it is an environment conducive to a child’s abilities. If a neighborhood park is not suitable, call the local parks department or city planning office to find where an accessible park is located, and plan a visit.

Under some circumstances, a parent may want to pro-actively advocate for change. If a parent feels like a piece of playground equipment is unsafe, he or she should call the park’s operator to relay their concerns. In other cases, parents can make a difference for their child – not to mention the park – by asking local government officials what barriers are in the way of making changes at a park that is truly accessible. Most often, the answer is that there just isn’t enough money to make the desired changes.

This is where parents can make a difference. They can pursue grant funding and volunteer resources with the assistance of the local nonprofit community in an effort to bring improvements to a park; municipal governments are likely to view the input positively, especially if it means that an underutilized park can get a makeover largely through donations, volunteerism and community block grant funds.

What steps can concerned community members take to create an inclusive park close to home?

Action steps include:

  • Talk to your city council members or township officials – to educate and inform them of the universal design concept and show them videos of the “Shane’s Inspiration” park efforts. When cost becomes an issue, suggest funding sources, fundraising committees, business donations (especially from the local corporations receiving tax advantages from the community), but also talk about the cost to children, society and the community at large of not having universally compliant and attractive parks.
  • Call your city or township planning departments and parks and recreation department – to discuss plans for playground updates, prospects for community block grant funds, and for city ordinances, policies and regulations.
  • Discuss playground plans with school boards – especially for schools with large populations of children with special needs.
  • Call your state parks and recreations departments – inquire as to any future plans for play area improvements. Ask if there are any opportunities for local citizens to raise funds, or volunteer time for such projects.
  • Contact one of the many playscape design companies – for their input, insight and expertise.
  • Call nonprofits and foundations who are actively involved in creating and funding playscapes – like Shane’s Inspiration Foundation parks, for ideas, connections and learnings.
  • Talk to your local United Cerebral Palsy chapters, Easter Seals, United Way, and ARC chapters for interest, sponsors, funding, volunteers, and project leadership.
  • Call MyChildTM at

    (800) 692-4453

    for a list of valuable Accessible Playground resources and contacts, including a reprint of this story.
  • Gain the interest of local media – to gain support, funding, and media exposure for efforts to garner support.
  • Talk to government representatives and community leaders – to tap into their vast array of tools and support to “get things done.” Remind them of the value of the beautiful parks to a whole community, including property values, attracting business and residents, reducing crime and juvenile delinquency – essentially a win-win for all.

Raising money for a park makeover, however, can take time, so it’s not something that can be undertaken lightly. Once the improvements are complete, the park is there for the foreseeable future for all children to enjoy. It’s a confirmation that public spaces and places should be open and accessible to all of us.

The term “play” often conjures up ideas that the time spent in its pursuit is not important, when in fact, meaningful play time in or outside a park is immensely beneficial to every child. It sets a foundation for health, fitness and well-being. Park play is a seminal part of the experience of being a child that should be available to all children, universally. By, developing children in an inclusive environment, they grow into adults filled with compassion, understanding and acceptance.

Is there a down side? Better yet, is there a down slide?

Building inclusive parks is a worthwhile endeavor.


two friends hugging


When a child with a disability reaches adulthood, feelings about acceptance by others may linger. If young people learn to accept themselves during their formative years, explore interests, form friendships, accomplish, interact, and socialize at age-appropriate stages, it can help empower a sense of belonging when they’ve grown.

Learn more

For more helpful tips, visit
Managing Cerebral Palsy and
Maximizing Potential.