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Inclusive Playground Design: Accessibility for All

A swing in an inclusive playground made to completely strap someone into it creating a safe swing

Often when we think of a playground, we think of tall slides with long ladders or narrow-seated swings requiring you to hold on tight to the metal chains connecting seat to frame. Rarely do we consider the inclusivity or accessibility of the equipment, surfacing material, or surrounding landscape. Well-designed playgrounds and parks create an inclusive space for people of all abilities to play, learn, and grow together. Kimley-Horn Parks and Recreation experts, including our in-house certified playground safety inspector, help make these community gathering spaces safer and more accessible for a greater sense of belonging.

What is an Inclusive Playground?

The goal of an inclusive playground is simple: include everyone. Traditionally, the favored style of playground design has been post-and-platform—a smaller platform, or ladder, leads to an elevated platform, reaching a higher point. This familiar design can lead to a lack of inclusion, excluding most people with disabilities or individuals who use wheelchairs. Inclusive playgrounds have become a key opportunity amenity for residential communities, cities, and retail developments to reach a segment of the population who, for many years, hasn’t had the ability to participate fully in community activities.

Parks and playgrounds offer people a unique place outside the home for growth, socialization, and development. An inclusive playground helps eliminate the physical, mental, and social barriers that result from exclusion. Incorporating inclusive elements provides a sensory-rich experience for all, even the elderly. Creating an easy to navigate play area encourages a fun bonding experience between grandparents or elderly caregivers and children. 

Some elements of an inclusive playground include:

  • No-static slides
  • Increased seating, including shaded areas
  • Changing tables for all ages
  • Larger parking lots for large van and bus access
  • Impact Attenuating Surfacing (IAS), a soft surface on which it is easier to safely walk or maneuver a wheelchair
  • Sensory panel walls or other ground-level features
  • Ramps leading to elevated places
  • Embankment slides
  • Other ADA accessible play components, such as rockers or spinners

The Shift Toward Inclusive Playground Design

In 2010, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) revised its standard, requiring design for public spaces such as playgrounds to become, “readily accessible to and usable by individuals with disabilities.” As a result, manufacturers began to produce products and equipment to follow ADA standards.

Communities have also started to become more educated about the importance of inclusive design, leading to an increased demand for inclusive playgrounds. Henslee Park playground, an inclusive playground being constructed in Dickson, Tennessee, was developed with the help of Kimley-Horn and involved partnering with the City to design a park that promotes inclusivity. Working hand-in-hand with the playground equipment manufacturer and sensory professionals, Kimley-Horn guided design plans to account for inclusive play equipment, adhering to the ADA guidelines.

Alisha Eley, Kimley-Horn Project Manager of the Henslee Park playground, expressed her desire to create a place for all kids to play:

“Children just want to play together. These playgrounds are a stepping stone to creating a more unified community, country, and world. It’s a small part we as designers can play in creating a world without barriers.”

Alisha Eley, Kimley-Horn Project Manager Tweet

Creating an inclusive playground without barriers doesn’t always mean starting from scratch. Granny White Park in Brentwood, Tennessee is an example of an existing post-and-platform playground modified to include people of all abilities and ages. Kimley-Horn is currently working with the City of Brentwood to reimagine the popular playground at Granny White Park. The community of Brentwood recognized the lack of accessibility the playground provided and called upon the city to act. Kimley-Horn is providing master planning and design, working closely with manufacturers to include inclusive equipment and relocate usable, safe, non-inclusive equipment elsewhere so it does not go to waste.

a zipline with a seat that a person can be strapped into before ziplining

Playground Safety and ADA Compliance Inspections

Jeffrey Holzer, Kimley-Horn’s Certified Playground Safety Inspector (CPSI), joined Kimley-Horn in 2016 with a specialization in Landscape Architecture. Over time, he discovered a love for designing parks and playgrounds, and chose to specialize in playground safety and ADA compliance. Jeffrey obtained his CPSI license in February of 2021, authorizing him to inspect play spaces for code requirements, safety hazards, and inclusive design.

Inclusive Playgrounds Promote Unity and Belonging

Jeffrey has utilized his certification to inspect various playgrounds and has seen the positive impact they have on a community that before, may not have known how beneficial an inclusive playground could be.

“Being uneducated or unaware of challenges in a play space is common among people that don’t have to think about it. We’re trying to create awareness to get the community involved in making these playgrounds a place where all can come and have fun.”

A sense of belonging for all is created when an inclusive playground is constructed. They are becoming multigenerational gathering spaces for community unification, socialization, connectivity, and fun. Kimley-Horn works diligently to create, and now inspect, these play places for clients across the country. It is one more way we help our clients and communities expect more and experience better.

About the Experts

Alisha Eley, PLA, LEED AP

Alisha Eley, PLA, LEED AP

Alisha is a landscape architect with more than 12 years of experience working with local municipalities across Tennessee on community enhancement projects. Her experience includes park and greenway planning and design, multimodal transportation planning, and streetscape design. She also often uses her knowledge of grant funding to assist communities in leveraging dollars to implement their project goals. Alisha’s passion is enhancing the landscapes in which we live, work, and play.

Jeffrey Holzer, PLA, CPSI

Jeffrey Holzer, PLA, CPSI

Jeffrey is a landscape architect with design experience in planning, urban design, and landscape architecture across the United States Atlantic Coast. His experience includes active and passive parks, streetscapes, schools and universities, multi-family residential, and athletic fields. Jeffrey recently became a Certified Playground Safety Inspector for Kimley-Horn and in 2020 won the Anova sponsored American Society of Landscape Architects National “Napkin-Sketch Design Competition” with a sketch and essay entitled “Inclusive Playgrounds for All”.

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