Inclusivity vs. Accessibility: Do you know what to look for? 


Inclusion is one of the greatest gifts we experience in our lives. From a young age, we have a strong need to feel accepted and part of a group. In fact, the 2020 Voice of Play Survey revealed that parents observed that spontaneous play with other kids on the playground helps shape their child’s view of equality for all, regardless of race and ability levels. Parents also agree that playing on the playground helps children to be inclusive of others who may have different abilities and backgrounds than their own.

However, not all playgrounds are created equal, and too often, playgrounds are created without the thought of being inclusive by design.

When playgrounds are inclusive, they welcome children of all ages and abilities to engage in positive, free play with other kids, where they can explore together and make connections and friendships, strengthening their social inclusion and state of being. Moreover, inclusive design invites players of all ages from the early beginnings of life through the grand and great-grandparent years. For example, I’m lucky enough to have five grandchildren, so our family prefers environments that facilitate multigenerational play.

Determining whether a playground is inclusive 

First, it’s important to recognize the difference between an accessible playground and an inclusive playground. Most playgrounds are likely accessible because of Department of Justice’s ADA requirements, which mandate that playground equipment must be accessible by all users. For example, an accessible playground might offer ramps leading to elevated play opportunities and would not have any barriers at entrances and exits.

An inclusive playground goes beyond ensuring access to the equipment. It’s designed to promote and encourage participation by children and family members of all ability levels, so that each child who enters the playground can experience the “fun” and not feel isolated. For example, we often see inclusive playgrounds offering a mix of different activities without setting aside a separate area for those who may not be able to slide, jump or climb. Fun ground-level activities are designed and installed to accommodate “players” of varied abilities and become special additions to the playground. Musical instruments with specially designed mallets are fun for everyone, especially when tuned to make a novice player sound magnificent.

Different ways to spot an inclusive playground

There are several different ways that parents and caregivers can identify an inclusive playground. 

Access: Accessibility to the playground equipment is important. If your child were in a wheelchair or using crutches, would they be able to safely enjoy the equipment? If not, this may be a sign the playground may not be accessible and inclusive. Speaking of signs, inclusive playgrounds often feature more playful and descriptive signage, like the board maker system of communication to aid users and their families and tactile signage helping the sight impaired.

Swings: One of our favorite spots on any playground, swings are a great way to improve motor skills, coordination, developing positive inner-ear health, while enjoying traveling rapidly through time and space. Inclusive playgrounds offer a variety of different swing types: one for toddlers and their caregivers to use at the same time, one for ages 2 through 4 with bucket seats, one for ages 5 to 12 with belt and board seats. One recent industry improvement is for swing seats with back and side supports, pommels to prevent sliding out of the seat and a harness to hold the user in the seat during the motion-filled swinging arc.

Ground-level: Inclusive playgrounds encourage creative ground-level play activities that all users are excited to participate in and experience the joy that comes from play. IPEMA members have been innovating new fun ways for children to experience movements like rocking, gliding, and bouncing while certifying new products to the applicable safety standards.

Sensory space: A mix of calm, quiet areas and sensory-rich areas is a great sign of an inclusive playground. Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or a sensory processing disorder often feel under or over stimulated and may need a quiet place to spend their time, or an engaging place to continue the fun and still feel like they are part of the playground atmosphere. 

Social space: Inclusive play environments are carefully designed to optimize the opportunity for players to interact with different age groups and ability levels. Many newer playgrounds have imaginative theming to encourage dramatic and imaginative play that allow children to act out and socialize in different settings. Some may find they can help another child who may be nervous to try the slide or teach them how to wait their turn when their excitement to climb the castle takes over. I’ve found that these areas may naturally encourage players of different ages and abilities to play and learn together while simultaneously creating a sense of community, learning and acceptance. 

Encouraging communities to make playgrounds inclusive

When asked in the Voice of Play survey what steps their own community should take to have the greatest impact on increasing opportunities for play for all children, parents agreed increased government funding for constructing inclusive playground equipment and policy changes to keep recess and physical education programs in schools were the highest. 

By becoming informed on inclusive playgrounds and inclusive play, and being willing to act, parents and caregivers can become advocates in their communities for extraordinary play environments.

One way to achieve this is to invite council members on community boards to learn about the importance of inclusive playgrounds and how they improve community and property values.

Another way is to reach out to other parents and friends in the community to work together as a team to continue moving towards inclusive playgrounds. 

We often find one of the best ways to gather insights is to go straight to the source. Speak with families whose children have disabilities and gather their thoughts on what would make a playground more enjoyable, fun and inclusive. 

Furthermore, I always encourage parents and children to recommit and reprioritize play by taking Voice of Play’s “Play Pledge.” For over two decades, the “Play Pledge” has encouraged parents and their children to commit to a goal of at least one hour of outdoor free play each day.

I always say that play is the great equalizer and allows children to develop empathy and readily accept differences. Inclusive play encourages and promotes understanding, helps in coping with mental impacts of social injustice, builds self-esteem and supports acceptance from an early age into adulthood. By making sure that one of these playgrounds exists in your neighborhood, or advocating for one if it does not, we are setting our children up for success, acceptance and social and physical benefits for the remainder of their lives. 

Tom Norquist is a founding board member and past president of IPEMA. Under his leadership, IPEMA formed their value of play outreach effort through the Voice of Play initiative. With 40 years of industry experience, Tom is a passionate speaker, award-winning park designer, and international advocate for play. He is a long-term active ASTM representative and President of the National Institute for Play. He also teaches at Auburn University’s School of Industrial and Graphic Design, receiving two Distinguished Service Awards. Tom has been involved in countless play innovations and has expertise in inclusion, child development, and multigenerational play. His expertise has been featured on the NBC Nightly News.