When child’s play is anything but to help children with disabilities, design by types of activities, not types of equipment
All children play. They do it so easily and spontaneously that we, as adults, refer to tasks that come easily to us as “child’s play”; that is, something that we can accomplish easily with but a minimum of thought. But for children, play is essential to healthy development–physical, cognitive, emotional and social–and offers a means of understanding the world around them. Free play–the unstructured, spontaneous, voluntary activity that’s so engaging for children–has long been recognized as the most beneficial form, and a wide variety of play settings and activities provides an environment that’s most conducive to free play and all-round development for children. These principles also hold true for children with disabilities. Opportunities for free play are critical for these children, whose lives may largely be made up of structured activities, and for whom access to free play with peers with and without disabilities may be severely limited.
Community playgrounds theoretically provide a setting in which all children can play freely together. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) focuses on removing physical barriers to full participation in community activities, and now also includes guidelines for public playgrounds. As a result, many playgrounds now have features such as transfer platforms to enable access to the equipment from a wheelchair.
But play is a social experience. Removing physical barriers promotes accessibility, but doesn’t necessarily improve social inclusion. Providing greater physical access within the play environment without creating similar social access can actually emphasize a child’s disabilities, rather than their capabilities. Perhaps only one in ten children who use wheelchairs and other mobility aids are able to use a standard transfer system. And then they may be able to move around the equipment only by crawling. Too often, children with disabilities who can access equipment find themselves isolated because the “fun stuff” is all at higher levels, beyond their reach.
Although they might look quite different, many pieces of equipment promote only one type of activity: the large muscle activity associated with what are known as “dizziness” activities. These are activities that allow children to experience sensations of movement uncommon in everyday routines, or the illusion of movement that being in a high place or on a slope creates.
All of these activities provide critical physical stimulus to children, but there are other types of activity that are equally important and that may be overlooked when design is limited to equipment lists. Fortunately, one of the more recent and promising approaches to improving playground design is to consider design on the basis of types of play activities (e.g., What will this offer the child?), rather than simply on types of equipment (e.g., How many swings and slides do we want?). These activities include:
Passive Resting (Meditative Stimulus): Dizziness activities should be balanced with passive resting, which is basically the absence of activity, when a child can experience the afterglow of dizziness and process the sensation. We’ve all seen children spin around long enough to make themselves dizzy and then happily collapse on the grass to recover. Passive resting is associated more with a setting than with a particular type of equipment. A playground needs active play space and resting places. Passive resting is especially important for children with disabilities, who may have limited stamina and simply need more rest, but also may need more time to internalize the effects of a stimulus. Children with social-emotional disabilities, particularly autism, often have an acute need to withdraw and internalize their experiences.
Exploratory Activities (Cognitive Stimulus): Exploratory activities stimulate children’s cognitive skills by causing them to act and think in ways beyond the norm. They offer surprises and a sense of discovery. On traditional playgrounds, games and activity panels are the most common exploratory activities.
These are successful to varying degrees, depending on the quality of the equipment, but they quickly become repetitive and no longer offer a sense of discovery or surprise. Children show as much initial preference for playing in natural landscapes; because these aren’t static, they retain children’s interest over time. In fact, the less manicured and more “wild” the setting appears, the more inclined children are to play in it. Children with disabilities also benefit more from exploratory play in natural environments, especially children with behavioral difficulties.
Dramatic Activities (imaginative Stimulus): Dramatic play allows children to assume a different role and persona, and is beneficial for children in all developmental stages. It may be prompted by a particular piece of playground equipment, but the activity itself is child-generated. What looks like a playhouse to an adult may actually be a fort, a hospital or a barn, according to the children who are playing in it. Physical accessibility of such spaces can be an issue for children with physical disabilities. But, ironically, the majority of dramatic activities often occur in the spaces between major pieces of equipment, areas that are often left inaccessible, with children making use of anything moveable that comes to hand.
Interactive Activities (Social/Emotional Stimulus): Of all the types of activities, opportunities for interaction are the least common for children with disabilities, but that very fact makes them the most critical. Providing opportunities for interaction among children who are able-bodied and disabled is often difficult, as children most frequently opt to play with peers (i.e., able-bodied with able-bodied and disabled with disabled). Forcing the two groups into close proximity by limiting play options or space may increase interaction, but some of that interaction is likely to be negative. In addition, children should always have the option of solitary play.
However, if a child wishes to take part in an interactive activity, the opportunity must be available. And if a child with a disability wishes to participate, the level of involvement and participation shouldn’t be dictated by the disability. For example, child-scaled tables encourage interactive activities. But if a child can’t reach the table without drawing undue attention to his or her disability, interaction will be limited. Similarly, a tic-tac-toe board may provide opportunities for interaction. But if the equipment has no tactile element, children with visual impairment will automatically be excluded. Interactive activities should downplay differences and highlight similarities among children.
Practice Activities (Developmental Stimulus): Practice activities help to develop everyday life skills. This mostly involves physical development–balance, strengthening large muscles, increasing fine motor control–and these activities have enormous therapeutic value for children with disabilities. Practice activities usually occur in conjunction with another type of activity, such as dizziness. But regrettably, many playgrounds developed with disabled children in mind mistake practice activities for dizziness activities. Practice activities build everyday capacity, but dizziness activities provide experiences that aren’t common in normal life routines; therefore, although the therapeutic value of practice activities may be high, the play value is low. Practice activities also tend to generate competition among children, which can segregate according to levels of physical skill, thereby harming the self-image and integration of children with disabilities. So while practice activities provide graduated challenges and can focus on the skills children share, they shouldn’t be the principle emphasis of integrated play settings. After all, kids go to playgrounds for fun, not therapy.
In addition, children’s play experiences can be enhanced by the use of sensory cues. The use (and absence) of sights, sounds, colors, textures and smells can highlight play elements, provide enhanced accessibility for those with sensory impairments and generally improve the play experience. Of course, care must be taken not to overly clutter the sensory environment, as sensory overloads can make it more difficult to understand the environment and cause anxiety. (Anyone familiar with the indoor playgrounds linked to fast-food restaurants is familiar with this notion!)
To provide developmentally appropriate free play opportunities for children of all abilities, play settings should support the greatest possible diversity of activities, and be of the highest possible quality and accessible through the least limiting of means. Without thoughtful attention to these issues, provisions for greater physical access aren’t only meaningless, but may be socially detrimental. In the typical community playground, physical activities predominate. We also need to provide for the other types of activity to allow children with different abilities to enjoy social interaction and acceptance through participation.
Keith Christensen is a landscape architect and the father of a four-year-old daughter with Muscular Dystrophy. He is the director of Beyond Access, which provides technical assistance and information about providing accessible outdoor play experiences to children. He is currently working on the design of a number of inclusive play spaces. He can be reached at keithc@cpd2. usu.edu. Jill Morgan, Ph.D., is a training/development specialist with the Center for Persons with Disabilities at Utah State University, and works with Christensen in directing Beyond Access. She can be reached at email@example.com. For more information about Beyond Access, go to www.cpd.usu.edu.
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