At the Backyartisan, we love covering the latest and greatest in backyard playsets. Today though, we want to expand our focus to include local playgrounds and how to make them accessible and inclusive for children of all abilities to explore and have fun.
Accessible and inclusive playgrounds are becoming the new standard across the country, whether they’re in public parks or your backyard. If you’re a parent looking to set something up in your backyard, this guide should give you a great head start on how to find the right equipment and make an accessible setup. If you’re a planner for your local community, hopefully this is a great head start to transforming a new area into an accessible and inclusive play space for all children.
We’ll start off by covering some basic definitions, then get into the legal standards for playsets, how to set up a playground for all children, how to find accessible and inclusive playground equipment, and finish up with some tips on financial assistance for local communities and who can help you get everything set up. If you want to skip down to a specific section, just click one of the links below:
- What is an accessible playground?
- What is an inclusive playground?
- Why accessibility is important
- Playground and playset accessibility standards
- How to make your playset or playground accessible and inclusive
- Getting financial assistance
- Where to find accessible playset equipment
- Who can help you with ADA compliance
What Is an Accessible Playground?
An accessible playground is physically accessible to as many children as possible. This means that all children playing there should be able to reach play sections in the area, regardless of height (more on minimum requirements later).
In most cases, a playground is accessible if someone using a wheelchair can navigate the entire area independently. This means having ramps between areas of differing heights, no gaps that a child must jump or climb over, and no areas that are too narrow to fit a wheelchair through.
To put it another way, accessible playgrounds are those with reasonably wide footpaths through the entire area. Anything a person cannot reach along these paths is not accessible.
Some people refer to this as the wheelchair standard. While this is not an official term, anything that’s accessible to people using wheelchairs is as accessible as any reasonable designer can expect to make things.
What Is an Inclusive Playground?
Inclusive playgrounds are those with toys, games, and segments that appeal to people with different needs or capabilities. Making playgrounds inclusive is significantly more challenging than making play areas accessible, and here’s why: there’s a variety of different needs, and it’s challenging to account for all of them.
However, we can consolidate most functional needs into several categories based on how they affect someone’s ability to use a playground. Here are the main groupings, which we verified and researched via the U.S. Access Board and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) documentation.
Partial or total loss of vision can affect someone’s ability to see some or all of a playground. People with visual limitations may have trouble navigating a play area without a physical guide. More importantly, they may not be aware of gaps or cliffs in the structure until they reach them.
The severity of vision loss can vary in its impact on playgrounds. Some people may have trouble seeing anything too far away, while other people may be completely blind.
This isn’t as easy to solve as teaching a route that people can duplicate in their imagination, either. People with aphantasia cannot use their mind’s eye to make enjoying a playground easier, so people with both aphantasia and total blindness may see literally nothing.
Addressing loss of vision may require creating raised signs or putting bumped areas in pathways that can navigate to exits.
Hearing loss can range from being unable to hear noises that are too soft to difficulty hearing from specific directions. These don’t affect someone’s ability to use a playground as much as other things can, but there are a few times when hearing is crucial.
The primary time this matters on a playground is when you’re trying to get all children to stop playing and return to the area’s entrance. People with partial or total deafness may be focused on specific toys or puzzles and may not notice anyone calling for them to come back.
One way of addressing deafness is using visual cues to get attention, such as waving large flags while calling for people to return. Advanced structures may also use lights or other components to provide signals. Similarly, most playground elements should not require auditory components to enjoy.
Hearing loss is relatively common in children, with the CDC reporting that about 15% of people between 6 and 19 years old have at least some hearing loss in one or both ears.
Designing playgrounds for children who are blind and deaf is particularly challenging. Areas with large blocks, sandpits, and water play are usually appropriate, especially if they have soft areas to help catch anyone who falls.
Acquired Brain Injuries
Acquired brain injuries are those that happen after birth, which means they’re not congenital, hereditary, degenerative, or caused as a result of the birthing process. These fall into two further sub-categories.
Traumatic brain injuries happen because of external force, such as falls or sports injuries. Football is a notable source of these, with chronic traumatic encephalopathy appearing in many players. That particular condition isn’t as common in children, but it does demonstrate how even childhood sports can lead to traumatic brain injuries.
Non-traumatic brain injuries are the result of internal factors, such as lack of oxygen or pressure from a tumor. Infectious diseases that damage the brain also fall into this category, although some argue that viruses and bacteria should count as external instead.
Like most things, the impact of acquired brain injuries can vary.
For playgrounds, addressing acquired brain injuries means ensuring that people can play at their own pace and do not need to exert sustained force for anything other than moving around. This means people should not need to hold more than one thing at a time or exert pressure to keep themselves safe.
Psychological conditions have a broad categorization, ranging from autism and Tourette syndrome to Down syndrome and dyslexia. Each of these conditions affects people in different ways. Playgrounds that are inclusive for people with hearing or visual limitations are already most of the way towards being inclusive for people with psychological conditions, too.
Like acquired brain injuries, psychiatric conditions typically fall into one of two categories. Some conditions may fall into both, but for categorizing things and understanding how they affect playground design, the following below are helpful guides.
External disorders trigger by something in a person’s environment. For example, autistic people may be sensitive to certain smells, textures, or sounds, in addition to everything else. Inclusive playgrounds should avoid causing too much stimulation, so selecting components with mild (or no) smells, smoother textures, and so on is helpful.
Internal disorders occur mainly in the brain and don’t need external triggers to affect someone. Most psychological conditions ultimately fall into this category, even if they have external components. For example, people with Tourette syndrome may have involuntary physical movements like knee jerks or arm spasms.
Addressing internal conditions may require modifications like handlebars and using playground designs that help minimize or eliminate harm if people move in sudden, unexpected ways. Tall fences that stop falls are usually enough to address cases like these.
In this context, lower-impact conditions are disabilities that have little or no impact on someone’s ability to use a playground. For example, while speech impediments may affect a child’s ability to participate in classroom discussions, they don’t stop a child from using a swing or a slide.
The challenge here is determining what’s lower-impact and what isn’t. For example, dyslexia may seem low-impact at first, but it can also prevent a child from reading instructions or safety guidelines. This is why most instructions should have visual guides alongside the text.
Lower-impact conditions mainly include things that do not affect physical or general cognitive abilities. Something on a playground is inclusive if almost anyone can reach and use it. If something has both sight and texture components, as well as a walkable path leading to it, it’s probably inclusive.
Why It’s Important to Have an Accessible and Inclusive Playground or Playset
There are many reasons why you should have an accessible and inclusive playground or playset, and we’re going to go over the main ones. Before we get into those, however, we have one other important thing to discuss: understanding the environment.
Disabilities And Environment
Most disabilities are partially affected by the environment. This is the fundamental principle behind accessible and inclusive play equipment, but many people don’t realize how far it extends.
Consider people who use wheelchairs. If they’re in the middle of a skyscraper with no elevators or ramps, only stairs, getting anywhere is a significant challenge. On the other hand, if there’s an elevator, they can access the same floors as everyone else, at the same speed.
In one situation, using a wheelchair stops them from getting around safely and at their own pace. In the other, they can access things at the same speed and with essentially the same ease as everyone else.
Next, let’s consider autism. Autism is associated with sensory overload, which means anything from textures on fences to rain falling from the sky can feel overwhelming. This is especially possible in children, who are still learning how to experience the world and developing their brains.
The modern world is, in many places, busier than it’s ever been before. There are more lights, sounds, smells, and even textures on materials that are all competing for attention. People with autism may be more susceptible to sensory overload in playgrounds in urban environments than the same playgrounds in quiet rural areas.
Ultimately, what all of this means is that you should consider the area around your playground, not just the components of the play area, when you’re deciding how to plan and build it. If the play area is loud and noisy to start with, you may want to reduce the sensory impact of the play area.
Similarly, it often helps to have areas where people can cool down and relax if needed. A covered dome with thick walls that absorb most sound waves can be welcoming for children who need a break.
Environments cannot eliminate the impact of disabilities. However, intelligent design can minimize the impact of most disabilities for most people, and that’s the goal of accessible and inclusive playgrounds.
Now that we know more about how the environment impacts play let’s look at the other reasons it’s important to have appropriate play areas.
Accessibility Supports Childhood Development
Accessibility is a key part of supporting childhood development, and there are a few reasons for this.
The first is that children are still developing their brains. Experiencing a variety of situations and stimuli can help them form neural connections, improve their motor skills, and generally develop physically. This isn’t limited to visual stimuli, either.
For example, people with limited vision or total blindness may still feel the different textures on play equipment. Learning to find the edges of these areas and understand the shape is a helpful skill, especially if they can learn braille later in life. Children with more limited experiences won’t be able to develop quite as much, and that will affect them throughout their life.
Accessibility is also helpful for promoting confidence in children. Disabilities can sharply damage someone’s self-esteem, especially if they constantly hear that they can’t play or do stuff with their friends. However, if playgrounds are accessible, they’ll learn that they can accomplish things, even if it differs from some of their friends.
It’s difficult to overstate how much of an impact accessibility can have on lifetime development.
Accessibility Is For You, Too
Accessibility isn’t just for children, although they get most of the focus in playground design. It’s also for adults, parents, and seniors. For example, the same paths that let people with wheelchairs move between different areas enable grandparents who need walkers to maneuver through a playset and spend more time with their grandchildren.
Disabilities can occur at any point in your life. Even if you’re fundamentally healthy, unexpected problems like vehicle collisions can take away your mobility and stop you from doing everything you could before.
If your playground or playset isn’t accessible, accidents could stop you from using them in the future. Making things accessible now is a form of future-proofing that gives you extra insurance.
It’s the Law
Finally, getting accessible playground equipment is the law, at least throughout the United States. This means that not getting at least minimally accessible equipment could lead to legal liability, fines, and a host of other problems. That alone is a good reason to focus on buying accessible equipment.
To be more specific, the law in question is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which was initially signed into law in 1990. The law itself is fairly long and covers five Titles (or major sections), but in short, it prohibits discrimination in all areas of public life.
The most relevant part of this law is Title III, which covers public accommodations, as well as privately-owned areas that are functionally public. This includes everything from hotels and restaurants to sports stadiums, movie theaters, and public playgrounds.
Standards for Accessible Playgrounds
The US Access Board has an excellent guide summarizing the ADA and other relevant legislation. These guidelines generally apply to all newly constructed and altered play areas that the ADA affects (that is, almost all public play areas), and they’re equally appropriate for private, at-home playsets.
With this guide in mind, let’s look at what the standards are and how they might be applicable to you.
Where Do Play Area Guidelines Apply?
Play area guidelines apply to most public settings where play areas exist, generally including public gathering regions, shopping areas, schools, parks, and most childcare facilities. However, they do not extend to religious sites, amusement parks, or family childcare areas where the proprietor lives.
Despite this limit, most religious areas that have playsets follow these guidelines regardless. As mentioned above, the rules encompass newly-built play areas, as well as any existing areas that receive alterations. Legal play area guidelines apply throughout all phases of multi-phase construction projects, which means they must be compliant at each stage.
(Note that regular maintenance, like replacing worn-out ropes, is not considered “altering” a play area. Similarly, relocating components to create safer use zones is not an alteration that would bring the law into force.)
Further, legal guidelines apply to each component of a play area. For example, if one part of the playground is meant for a certain age group and another section is meant for a different age group, both areas must be independently compliant. Having one area compliant is not sufficient.
What Is a Play Component?
A play component is any element of a play area that’s designed to provide specific opportunities for socializing, playing, or learning. Play components may be natural (like large rocks) or artificial. They can also be independent or part of a larger collection of play components.
Generally, water tables, playhouses, slides, climbing areas, swings, and similar structures are all classified as play components.
Anything that’s not intended mainly for play does not fall into this category. This means that ramps, roofs, decks, stairs, and other things are not play components even though people may play on them.
These guidelines do not demand that every component be completely accessible for everyone. However, each play area should have at least one type of play experience that’s fully accessible, and especially so at ground level. In this context, a “type” of play is a specific experience, such as swinging, sliding, or rocking.
How Many Play Components Must Be on an Accessible Route?
The correct number of accessible play components depends on how many components there are in total. Broadly, at least 1/3 of ground-level components must be on an accessible route, compared to the number of elevated play components, and there should be as many different types of play components as possible.
However, if ramps provide access to at least 50% of elevated components and there are three different play types in those elevated areas, additional ground-level items are not necessary. See the guide we linked above for the full chart on play components.
Note that these are the minimum guidelines for play areas. If we’re aiming for full accessibility, then every play component should be as accessible as possible.
What Are the Requirements for Accessible Routes?
Accessible routes are any pathways that are specifically designed to support people with disabilities, particularly including those with wheelchairs or other mobility-assisting devices. These are divided into ground-level and elevated paths.
Ground-level paths should have at least 60 inches (five feet) as their minimum clear width, which is roughly wide enough to let two people using wheelchairs pass each other with no difficulty. Further, it should have a slope no greater than 1:16, which is moderate enough to let people move along it without needing too much space.
There are a few exceptions to these guidelines. First, routes can narrow down to 36 inches for up to five feet of the path to work around site design features like trees. Second, play areas that are smaller than 1000 square feet can have paths that are 44 inches wide. Finally, any route that exceeds 30 feet needs a wheelchair-turning area.
Outside of the path requirements, the airspace above the path must be clear for at least 80 inches above the ground.
Elevated paths must have at least a 36-inch clear width, although it can narrow down to 32 inches for up to 2 feet to accommodate general construction features. Further, ramps should not rise more than one foot, and handrails must be 20-28 inches above the ramp’s surface.
Ramps are required on structures with 20 or more play components elevated above the ground and must connect to at least 25% of those components.
What Other Accessibility Requirements Apply to Play Components?
Several other accessibility requirements apply to play components.
The first of these is maneuvering space, which mainly applies to people using wheelchairs. A turning circle is a 60-inch circle that is clear of all obstructions and doesn’t have a slope steeper than 1:48 in any area. T-shaped turns are also acceptable. Areas must have at least one maneuvering space on the same level as any elevated play component.
Next, play areas should have entry points and seats to enable access. This includes the ability to transfer from a wheelchair to a play component. Parts like open sides, hand supports, back supports, and handrails can all support access.
Further, play components do best with a reach range of 20-36 inches in areas designed for children between 3 and 4 years old. This can increase as far as 16-44 inches for children older than nine years old.
Applying the Standards
Applying the standards above requires evaluating the design at each phase of the process. Generally, this process involves assessing everything that’s present, determining what’s needed to ensure accessibility, comparing the play types, and then assessing the changes needed to ensure compliance.
This is relatively easy for new structures because you can literally design the play area from the ground up. It can be harder modifying existing structures as meeting accessibility requirements may require removing or replacing some components.
How to Make Your Playground or Playset Accessible and Inclusive
There are several things you can do to make a playground or private playset more accessible and inclusive for people.
Ramps are the best way to get between different levels of play structures. You can also include stairs or ladders, especially if you don’t need to connect every structure, but ramps are fundamentally more accessible for everyone. We recommend including as many of them as space and budget constraints permit.
Slides are moderately accessible components and are usually better for descent than stairs. However, people with wheelchairs may need to have someone else bring their wheelchair down after using a slide, so keep that in mind.
Swings are also accessible for most people, which makes them a good choice for playgrounds. When possible, try to use swings with safer seats that are difficult for people to fall out of, rather than just a flat seat. People should be able to stay in the seat even if they can’t grip the ropes or chains.
Similarly, make sure the ropes for a swing are safe. If you’re using chains, try to wrap them in plastic somehow to prevent areas that can pinch or harm people.
For people in a wheelchair, there are also several options available for wheelchair accessible swing sets that you can install. SportsPlay Equipment and We-Go-Swing both manufacture some good options.
Wheelchair-accessible equipment is any play component that people can reach on their own while in a wheelchair. This includes paths leading into the playground, as well as ramps, bridges, and other accessible connections. This term also includes the handles, seats, and other elements people may need to transfer from a wheelchair to a play component.
Ground-Level Play Activities
Ground-level play activities are fundamentally more accessible, so it’s good to include as many of them as you can. However, many children enjoy elevated play, and at any rate, moving between levels is also good for their physical development. In short, try to find a good balance between ground-level and elevated play.
Sensory activities are those that provide specific sensations. This can range from the textures of a play component to feelings of movement. Having different types of sensory activities can appeal to people who like some sensations but not others.
Try to provide as few ‘mandatory’ sensations as possible. For example, grated flooring can be very rough for people using wheelchairs because they’re constantly hitting small bumps. Similarly, components that provide shelter from the sun or rain are useful.
Financial Assistance for Accessible and Inclusive Playground Equipment
There are many ways to get financial assistance for installing accessible and inclusive equipment. Miracle has an excellent guide on this topic, covering a variety of national, government, and regional grants that can make it easier to get this equipment.
Your area may also have local financial assistance, ranging from tax benefits to direct grants from city or county governments or even support from charities and other private organizations. Some groups may even engage in fundraising to help build or renovate play areas.
The important thing to understand here is that financial assistance is available, especially if you’re building a public area and not just installing a playset at home.
Organizations often have different requirements for getting grants, so evaluate each source differently to see if they’re a good match for your project. Many organizations try to maximize the impact of grants, so they may be more willing to offer help if you can demonstrate that your playground equipment will get a lot of use.
Make sure you write out a clear proposal for your project, including what you’re asking from each organization. Details like how you plan to track the money, how you’ll report using it, and any companies you’re cooperating with can all make requests for financial assistance more appealing.
Where to Find Accessible Playground Equipment
Accessible playground equipment is available from most manufacturers, including companies like Playworld and Little Tikes. Companies may have specific product categories or pages on their website clarifying which products they sell are most accessible.
This leads to one other issue: compatibility. Separate components like swings can come from any manufacturer, but anything that’s integrated together works best if you get all the components from one manufacturer. This means that finding a company to buy from is a big decision.
Bigger companies usually have many more parts and options than smaller companies, which makes it easier to design a fully accessible playground. Small parks and play areas don’t need this many options.
Playworld and Little Tikes mentioned above have some good options, and you can also check out SportsPlay for their wheelchair accessible swings. You can also ask relevant organizations for input. For example, if there’s an accessible park you like nearby, you can look up who supplied equipment there and see if they fit your project.
Who Can Help You with ADA Compliance for Your Playground or Playset
Dedicated support organizations are one of the best resources for ensuring ADA compliance. For example, Access Advocates specializes in architecture, engineering, and technology that complies with the ADA, and they note that they’ve completed over 10,000 plan checks for clients.
We recommend talking to an attorney at some phase of your project, preferably around the design phase, when you want to make sure your final plan is fully compliant with the law. Outside of attorneys, dedicated architectural firms should also be aware of ADA regulations and can help with your planning.
Charitable organizations may also help ensure ADA compliance, especially if they specialize in accessibility issues. This can be more affordable than hiring an attorney for the whole project, but make sure you get qualified legal input before you finalize your plans.
Finally, be sure to ask your equipment provider(s) if they have any recommendations for firms to consult. They may be able to refer you to firms in your area that can help ensure compliance, and their recommendations are usually enough to help with any project.