Designing Inclusive Playgrounds

  • Playground design considerations

Autistic children and young people are often unable to fully participate in play on playgrounds, both in the school and community. This can be due to lack of awareness of how to support play for autistic individuals. It is recommended that in order to ensure that playgrounds are inclusive of the needs of all users, the views and input of autistic children, their families and other interested parties (e.g. Occupational Therapists) should be sought in the early design stage.

  • Features of inclusive play spaces

Middletown Centre for Autism asked parents and caregivers of autistic children and young people how play spaces could be made more inclusive.

The need for more outdoor play spaces in local communities was identified, with quiet times for autistic children allocated throughout the day (not just early morning and late evening), and more specialised equipment for older children and teens. These playgrounds should be easily accessible and within walking distance.

70% of respondents felt that their child or young person would benefit from having more equipment available in public play spaces, including a variety of swings and slides suitable for all ages, in-ground trampolines, accessible roundabouts, climbing bars and ropes, hiding spaces and tunnels, sensory play features, static exercise equipment, and creative/musical play. 

“Make the community more aware and inclusive of all our different needs”

Parent, MCA Outdoor Play Survey

Parents identified a need for signs about inclusive play and encouragement to accept everyone in order to reduce bullying and exclusion in play spaces. 

Concerns over safety can also prevent autistic children from playing inclusively in the outdoors. Play spaces are often near busy roads meaning they are not safe for children to walk to or play in unsupervised, especially if they have a reduced sense of risk. Adequate fencing and seating areas for adults to supervise from are therefore recommended to meet the needs of all users. 

“The access to more appropriate outside spaces for autistic children will help them in more ways than you could count”

Parent, MCA Outdoor Play Survey

Universal Design and outdoor play

Dr Helen Lynch, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy at University College Cork (UCC), looks to the principles of Universal Design as a concept for designing outdoor play spaces for inclusion. A Universal Design playground is one where the designers and providers work to ensure the playground is accessible and also usable to the greatest extent possible for as many people possible. The Universal Design model is not about designing for disability but about designing for all. 

The 7 principles of Universal Design:

  1. Equitable use
  2. Flexibility in use
  3. Simple and intuitive to use
  4. Perceptible information
  5. Tolerance for error
  6. Low physical effort
  7. Size and space for approach and use

The 8 goals of Universal Design:

  1. Body fit
  2. Comfort
  3. Awareness
  4. Understanding
  5. Wellness
  6. Social integration
  7. Personalisation
  8. Cultural appropriateness

There are many ways in which playgrounds can be designed for play value to benefit autistic children and young people. Based on the concept of Universal Design, this guidance to creating inclusive play spaces can be used to assist with designing an outdoor play space. 

The aim is to create a flexible, imaginative and unique play space that is not solely reliant on equipment for play value, that challenges and engages children of all ages and abilities (NSW Department of Planning, 2021). 

Recommendations include:

  • Accessible pathways
  • Signage and wayfinding
  • A range of dynamic play options to balance, climb, rock, slide, swing or spin
  • Play opportunities that are both comfortable and challenging to engage individuals of different ages and ability levels
  • Individual and multi-user play options
  • A variety of surfacing to provide a contrast between zones
  • Sensory focused and natural elements
  • Formal or informal boundary enclosure
  • Seating areas with shade and a variation of seating types
  • Vantage points with a view of the whole play space
  • A sense of distinction between quiet areas and activity spaces through landform, planting and surface materials

This guide for inclusive playgrounds contains examples of Universal Design playgrounds, including Mungret Autism-friendly Playground in Limerick.

To hear more about Universal Design and inclusive play, our podcast interview with Dr Helen Lynch can be accessed here.

  • Inclusive outdoor play in schools 

For autistic children, large undefined spaces such as playgrounds, lack of predictable and structured routines, and the types of play inherent in the outdoors can make playground time a challenging experience. We are therefore advised to consider child factors (e.g. gender, age, developmental ability) and other contextual factors (e.g. types of materials and toys used in play, group size and composition, degree of adult involvement in play) when evaluating factors influencing inclusion on playgrounds. 

Observing play is a useful strategy in understanding how children are engaging with the outdoor environment, their play preferences, abilities and interests, and identifying any barriers in place. It is important to regularly audit the space to ensure that it is fit for purpose and providing meaningful play opportunities for all children within the setting. These templates developed by Middletown can be used to assess outdoor play within your setting: Outdoor Play Observation Checklist, Outdoor Play Audit.

  • Making your existing play space inclusive

Designing an inclusive outdoor play space does not need to be costly. Recyclable loose parts materials such as crates, pallets, tyres, nets, logs, fabrics, sand, water and stones can be sourced cheaply or for free and hold high play value due to their open-ended and sensory nature. 

Items with no prescribed function encourage imagination and support physical, cognitive, social and emotional development through creative engagement with the environment. They may act as “the catalyst to enquiry” (Sutton, 2011), providing unstructured play in a structured environment.

“The wider the variety of play and ways of playing the environment supports, the more inclusive it is of children with a wide range of abilities and needs”

Casey, 2007

Providing natural and green spaces is recommended where possible. Play in natural rather than manufactured spaces is found to be less competitive and more inclusive, with less division by gender, age, ability, class and race (Flannigan and Dietze, 2017; Lucas and Dyment, 2010; Van Dijk-Wesselius et al, 2018).

This is partly because in traditional playgrounds the organisation of space promotes typically masculine and neurotypical play (e.g. sports; large network activities). Michael Follett, founder and director of OPAL Outdoor Play and Learning, found that as much as 80% of spatial allocation in primary school playgrounds is set aside for boys’ football. 

The use of zoning has been examined in terms of its benefits in controlling traffic flow, directing activity and stopping the domination of space by certain groups. Having activity zones gives children greater autonomy of choice over their play. 

The Middletown Outdoor Play Audit recommends looking at the following areas:

  1. Outdoor environment
  2. Materials and resources 
  3. Sensory Play
  4. Supporting play 
  5. Reflection and evaluation

Outdoor environment

The outdoor space should consist of clearly designated zones of play. Examples could include:

  • Gross motor/high physical activity play area
  • Sensory play area
  • Imaginative area
  • Creative area (art/design, music)
  • Messy play area
  • Nature/horticulture area
  • Break/snack area
  • Quiet area
  • Climbing area
  • Sand and water area
  • Small equipment area

These areas should be separated by clear physical and visual boundaries with pathways to transition between areas.

Placement of each zone should be well considered (e.g. the quiet play area is not beside the noisy team games area).

The rules and guidance pertaining to each area should be clearly visible (e.g. a social story for play rules/expectations in each area might be useful).

Materials and resources 

Resources should be arranged so that the students can see them and make choices for themselves.

Resources should be clearly labelled with photos/pictures and words and kept in a designated area.

Natural resources which stimulate the senses should be readily available. 

Any changes to resources should be made clear to the students, e.g. through a visual support.

Sensory Play

The materials and resources in each play zone should afford the students choice of sensory play opportunities, including: 

– Exploring textures (e.g. sand, water, bubbles, mud play, making things with nature and loose parts)

 – Exploring sounds (e.g. listening to nature, sound experiments, making musical instruments out of other objects)

 – Investigating smells, tastes and textures (e.g. gardening activities)

 – Exploring movement and strength (e.g. running, jumping, cycling, climbing, rolling, spinning, swinging, pulling) 

 – Visual experimenting (e.g. experimenting with light and shade and colours; experimenting with how things move or transform; experimenting with perspective, shape and form. 

There should be topography (e.g. hills, slopes, tunnels, mounds etc.) to afford the students to explore, climb, run, jump and take risks, stimulating proprioceptive and vestibular sensory systems.

Students should have access to sheltered and shaded areas in the play space.

Quiet/calm areas should be provided. 

There should be challenging environmental obstacles such as differing textured pathways, logs/tree trunks, boulders, tyres, swings, monkey bars etc. that physically challenge and require problem solving skills.

Supporting play 

Free play must be viewed as an integral part of the school day. 

For some students, certain new and specific concepts and behaviours may require direct teaching, support and scaffolding, e.g. following the rules of a game. 

The adult can select and introduce resources (e.g. toy, book, shell, flower) which capture interest to create moments which spark student’s play.

Reflection and evaluation

The school should have a shared vision for the outdoor environment and its possibilities and the opportunities it provides for students. This is incorporated in the school’s play policy. 

The school can make adjustments to materials following changes in the student’s interests and activities over time.

Through observing outdoor play, teachers can look for attainment and achievement within literacy, numeracy and wellbeing and also notice and record the development of higher order thinking skills, e.g. reasoning, predicting, evaluating, modifying and inventing.

  • Inclusive outdoor spaces for adolescents

“Outdoor play is something my child will need for the rest of his life, as will many of the increasing numbers of autistic people”.

Parent, MCA Outdoor Play Survey

This document from Learning Through Landscapes, Inspiring Scotland and Grounds for Learning gives ideas for designing the outdoor space with teenagers in mind.

There are typically much fewer resources in the playground at secondary level, despite the continued importance of play for mastering physical skills, getting regular exercise and boosting physical confidence and competence. Stimulating playgrounds suited to the needs of adolescents offer subtle and engaging ways of developing physical literacy including balance, coordination, agility, throwing, catching and gripping. Research suggests that physical activity at secondary level break time can be boosted by three times as much through the introduction of more facilities (Haug, 2010). 

Break time for adolescents is also a vital time for social interaction and development which can be supported through considered design. For example, providing discreet but visible areas for small groups of pupils to interact or take time out creates social affordances not available in the traditional open-spaced playground which can be intimidating – particularly to autistic children. 

Learning Through Landscapes suggest the following ideas for designing outdoor play areas for adolescents in secondary schools: 

  • Provide significantly more shelter and seating in varied locations and styles. 
  • Break up spaces into smaller discreet but not hidden areas.
  • Significantly vary topography, colours and materials used. 
  • Plant more trees, shrubs and flowers for interest and shelter. 
  • Have a wider choice of activities and open ended use structures. 
  • Provide walking paths and routes for pleasure.