Photo: Talia Herman/Re:form

All-Access Play

Designing more inclusive recreational spaces for kids


At an unusual children’s gym in Berkeley, the swings are as varied and fanciful as any you’d find at Burning Man: a striped blue-and-red basket that whirls like a dervish, a canvas cocoon shaped like a teardrop, and a capacious hammock with folds you could disappear into.

My 3-year-old son rocks on a sturdy plastic swing before racing off to a zip line. A few feet away, an older boy stares dreamily, draped on a padded rectangular swing that glides smoothly as a metronome, pushed by an aide.

Photo: Talia Herman/Re:form

This is Saturday morning fun at We Rock the Spectrum, a recreational facility for kids on the autism spectrum, and well as “neurotypical” children like my twins. The attractions — trampolines, swings, crash pads, bouncy balls, wooden ladders with rungs cut into the shape of ovals, dumbbells and more — are popular for just about every kid, and for those with sensory disorders and autism, they double as a form of therapy, providing self-calming movement and stimulating the inner ear.

Dina Kimmel, the mother of an autistic son, founded We Rock the Spectrum in 2009, after consulting with occupational therapists and testing which swings and equipment were most popular with all children. Because of his behavioral issues, her son Gabriel had been kicked out of other indoor playgrounds. She wanted to create a place where he could have fun and feel included. Five years later, with their nineteenth location slated to open soon, We Rock the Spectrum is evidence that this is an idea whose time has come.

The parallels between inclusive playground design and Burning Man are not entirely unrelated: some of the most exciting new concepts for children’s playscapes have taken inspiration from the desert arts festival that brings out the kid in every attendee. Increasingly, playscapes are incorporating what’s known as inclusive design — not only making equipment physically accessible to families of all abilities, but also removing common social barriers. So often, disability leads to peer isolation, and these places try to remedy that problem, with structures and layouts designed to enable and encourage children to play with each other.

Photo: Talia Herman/Re:form

The Americans with Disabilities Act guidelines for playgrounds center around access for individuals in wheelchairs and with other mobility issues, but do not address how to meet the needs of children with impaired hearing and vision, developmental, cognitive, sensory or autism spectrum disorders.

“The ADA only goes part way. It doesn’t address functionality, how the user can engage with the activity, if they’ll find it stimulating and fun and if it facilitates social interaction,” said John McConkey, market insights manager at Landscape Structures, a commercial play equipment manufacturer founded by a landscape architect. If you forgo designing for inclusion, you could end up with “ramps to nowhere,” he said, which provide access but little fun.

As the mother of twin boys, I’ve turned into a playground aficionado. I seek out designs and environments that spark their imagination and mine: a carved raccoon peeking out from the knothole, a pirate ship with portholes for playing peek-a-boo. I note which ones have fences — a design feature that parents of autistic children, who are prone to wandering off and potentially endangering themselves, also appreciate. I value poured rubber surfaces and ramps, which are easier to navigate with a stroller and less messy than sand; and so, too, do the parents of children in wheelchairs or who have sensitivity to certain textures. But as many hours as I’ve logged on playgrounds, I rarely see children of different abilities. If the design isn’t inclusive, if families don’t feel welcome, they won’t come.

Girls’ playground, Harriet Island, St. Paul, Minn. 1905.

In the late 19th century, the first public playgrounds — “sand gardens” — appeared in Germany. Boston followed in 1886, and by the early 20th century, playgrounds became more common , offering welcome public space to get children out of crowded tenements and off the streets.

“The playground is the first real classroom kids have. It’s where you get to know the people in your community, where you build your physical strength and social skills,” said Olenka Villarreal, founder of Magical Bridge, a $4 million inclusive playground scheduled to open in Palo Alto this December. “Prejudices form when children aren’t exposed to different kinds of kids. And if you’re a kid that can’t get on the equipment, who can’t get across the sand, it sends the message that someone didn’t think about you when designing the park.”

Her second child, Ava, had developmental and cognitive delays. The back-and-forth “vestibular” movement of a swing helped develop coordination and strength, but Ava couldn’t sit up comfortably in the swings at the local playgrounds, which lacked high-backed seats to support her. Villareal took Ava to an expensive indoor occupational therapy clinic each week, but it wasn’t enough. “It’s like going on a diet once a week. You need to do it constantly. It was so infrequent, it wasn’t helping.”

That led Villarreal to take up the fight for greater accessibility and inclusion in playground design.

A sketch of Butler’s design for the Magical Bridge playhouse.

At Magical Bridge, Barbara Butler, a custom builder of luxury play structures, has designed a wheelchair-accessible two-story playhouse and community stage, and a lookout around a stony pine tree.

Years ago Butler’s brothers, who are general contractors, taught Butler about the construction trade while remodeling brownstones in Washington DC. She learned how to lay bricks. Then, after moving to San Francisco to work on her painting and writing, she and a friend supported themselves by designing and building backyard fences, decks, and hot-tubs. With a master’s degree in English and no formal architecture or industrial design training, she learned on the job and through books.

In 1987, singer Bobby McFerrin asked her to build a play structure. It was Butler’s first. She designed one with carved totem poles and the tire from her truck for a swing. Almost thirty years later, Butler has designed over 600 play structures (and has an architect and structural engineer on hand when she needs them). Designing play structures, she says, combines her love of construction, the outdoors, kids, and play. “I guess I should have been architect, but I’m too busy to go back to school!”

A play structure designed by Barbara Butler. Photo courtesy of Barbara Butler.

It’s perhaps fitting that Magical Bridge, located in the heart of Silicon Valley, will also showcase an installation by an artist well-known at Burning Man, which has become as much about tech as art. Tim Thompson, a software engineer and Burning Man regular who serves on the playground’s board, proposed the idea to the design committee.

Initial Sketches by Jen Lewin

Artist Jen Lewin creates immersive works that draw upon her studies in architecture, art and technology. For the new playground, she’s building a “light harp, a 20-foot-long, 10-foot-wide instrument that uses movement to trigger sounds from 24 interactive beams from low-voltage diode LEDs. Under the arch, players can use their entire body to interact with the piece. She learned how to engineer installations of this size and scale on her own, over time, with a broad idea of play that’s fun and still sophisticated. “Across the board it’s attractive to babies, teenagers, hipsters, grandma, grandpa dads, with a quality that everyone can respond to,” she said.

George Zisiadis, a San Francisco artist and designer, specializes in interactive installations. After studying sociology at Harvard University, he began working on art that enhances how people interact with each other and the world. His works include giant red hearts with copper plated handles that turn heartbeats into music; a mistletoe drone that flies over the heads of urban pedestrians and prompts them to kiss; a tree strung with suspended headphones that invites people to listen to music.

For Magical Bridge, Zisiadis designed motion sensors that set off audio recordings of people’s feet walking through different conditions — the squishing sound of mud, the slosh of water, and the crunch of leaves or snow. “I’m so excited to contribute to a playground that is positively challenging our expectations and encouraging us to imagine a better, more inclusive world,” Zisiadis said.

In addition to the highly stimulating and tech-enabled features, the facility also includes custom-designed huts for a quiet respite from the noise and excitement. The shelters are big enough to accommodate people in wheelchairs and those who are taller and older. Commercially-available versions include the Cozy Cocoon by Playworld Systems (pictured below) and an igloo-shaped Cozy Dome by Landscape Structures.

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Private groups, often led by parents with a personal stake, have pushed for inclusive play design across the country. Their stories are reflected in the names: Tatum’s Garden in Salinas, CA; Shane’s Inspiration in Los Angeles; Harper’s Playground in Portland, OR; Brooklyn’s Playground in Idaho, and Jake’s Place in Cherry Hill, NJ. (Here are 30 notable inclusive playgrounds in the U.S., and NPR’s Playgrounds for Everyone lists accessible spaces across the country.)

Beyond the equipment itself, playgrounds can foster inclusion through their layout, says Mara Kaplan, an advocate for inclusive play and the mother of a disabled son. Don’t segregate — that is, don’t design an “autism corner” with musical instruments and spinning equipment beside a retreat hut; the noise will clash with the quiet. Group by activity, not ability.

Kaplan collaborated on this inclusive play design guide for Playworld Systems. To encourage cooperation, the guide suggests equipment designed to be operated by two or more people, or with features that reveal themselves as more than one person joins in.

There’s also the principal of “coolest play,” meaning the structure that will generate the most buzz should feature the most inclusive design. Exciting slides should have ramps to enable access; net webbing should be easy to use at ground level and become more difficult higher up; gliders should enable children with disabilities and friends to participate.

Fletcher Miller School, Lakewood, CO/Landscape Systems

In recent years, playground design has been featured at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, as well as an upcoming show at Design Museum Boston. “Everyone remembers a great play space from their childhood,” said Paige Johnson, founder and editor of Playscapes, a website showcasing amazing designs from around the world. “There is a concern that not only are these places being lost, but that physical play itself is being lost to digital play and an over-emphasis on safety in the spaces we make for children.”

Johnson has found playgrounds designed specifically for the disabled to be “distressingly artificial,” constructed largely with plastic and metal. Instead, she argues, inclusive design should incorporate the landscape, such as slides built into the side of a hill. With the right angle and surfacing, children won’t need a ramp or a ladder to get to the top. Places where children play with what they find around them, at their own ability level, can also lead to inclusion, she says. This is evident at the “adventure playground” in Berkeley, where kids saw and paint, and help build forts, boats, and towers.

Adventure-style playgrounds are rare in the United States, but have been popular in the United Kingdom, which has a greater acceptance of risk.

“The U.S. has been more litigious and in our efforts to eliminate hazards in play environments we have also eliminated developmentally beneficial risk in play,” says Keith M. Christensen, a play and accessibility specialist.

Regardless of the approach, inclusive design shouldn’t draw attention to differences, says Christensen, who provided consulting services to Magical Bridge. “You design the environment that allows children to use their abilities to play, so cleverly that it doesn’t stand out.”


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