Kids Are Common Denominator

Parks and playgrounds provide some of the greatest memories of youth. For children, playing in a park, on a playground or at home is more than just fun. It is a way of exploring the world around them and building social, physical, cognitive, emotional and creative skills.

For children with special needs or disabilities, playing brings challenges that require extra consideration. Unfortunately, the park-design process has historically neglected the special needs of children who have disabilities. More and more communities, however, are now trying to create parks and playgrounds that are accessible to--and inclusive of--children of varying abilities and skill levels.

Creating an inclusive park that can be shared by all children requires an understanding of the diverse needs of those with disabilities. While the challenges are certainly complex--just consider the varying and different needs of children in wheelchairs and children who are blind--solutions can be found through careful consideration and a little creativity. The process begins with a shift in the designer’s mindset--a commitment to incorporating amenities and activities that will engage all children.

Finding ‘Common Ground’

Lakeland--a small city in Central Florida--is a prime example of a community benefiting from a fresh approach to park design. After a mother pointed out that her child with special needs couldn’t play on a piece of park equipment, the city hired Glatting Jackson Kercher Anglin, a community planning and design firm, to modify existing equipment in the playground.

When everyone realized the opportunity at hand, what had begun as a simple playground modification evolved into a much larger project to create a community park environment for all children--those with and without disabilities--to interact with each other and with nature. Lakeland’s residents, policymakers and the design team embarked on a four-year journey to design and build an all-inclusive, eight-acre park that will be known as Common Ground.

“This truly is a community park--one that the community stepped up to build and that will welcome residents of all abilities,” said Bill Tinsley, Parks and Recreation Director for the City of Lakeland.

Designed on a butterfly theme, the park’s activity areas will be grouped into “lobes,” like sections of a butterfly’s wing. Designers incorporated a butterfly garden, a music zone, climbing equipment, swings and sways, a quiet story-time area, and a large section for natural, or adventure, play.

Children of all abilities will be able to interact in the natural play areas that will include accessible sand and water tables, a water pump where kids can explore cause-and-effect by pumping water into a stream bed below, rocks and boulders to sit and climb on, wheel-through tunnels and a universally accessible path that will elevate children eight feet over the rest of the playground. All of these features were designed for a wide variety of skills and are compliant with current Accessibility Guidelines criteria of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The principles used to develop Common Ground can help park designers everywhere create spaces where all children can learn, play, make friends and develop life skills. The following strategies have proven very successful:

· Take playing in wheelchairs to new heights. Children confined to wheelchairs don’t often experience life at different heights. Adding ramps and elevated paths can help them see environments from a different perspective. Also, new wheelchair swings and “sways” allow youngsters to roll their chairs onto skid-free platforms where they can experience and enjoy the sense of movement and excitement that other children find on traditional swings. Elevated sandboxes or activity tables, overhead bars and wheel-through arcades create opportunities for children in wheelchairs to interact with their friends.

· Using ramps and ropes, minimize transfer platforms. Many traditional playgrounds accommodate children in wheelchairs by using “transfer platforms” where they are lifted out of their chairs and placed on the ground to “scoot” across the play equipment. Such platforms put children in weakened positions and also draw attention to their disabilities.

Progressive designers are moving away from transfer platforms. One solution is to incorporate ramps into the playground design. While the equipment costs more and must comply with ADA slope percentages and rest stops, it’s worth it. Children gain access to the equipment--and can play, learn and interact--without being put in vulnerable or embarrassing positions.

Another option is to make provide access to cable or net play structures. The opportunity to “hang” with friends on a space-net climber allows for kids to interact with friends on the same level while also building upper body strength.

· Install wheel-friendly surfaces. Wheelchairs can’t plow through sand, making parks with all-sand surfaces out of reach for many children. Other types of ground treatments--such as poured-in-place rubber mulch, engineered wood fiber, rubber tiles and artificial turf--provide safe, durable surfaces that wheelchairs can navigate easily. With a wide variety of surface types on the market, playground planners can create rich and interesting patterns that provide an extra layer of detail to a play area while maintaining safe, universal access.

· Provide navigation aids. For kids with disabilities, the park experience includes both the journey to an activity and what they find when they get there. Sight-impaired children rely on their feet and hands to guide them and are extremely aware of tactile changes. Therefore, the first challenge for planners and designers is to leverage tactile elements to assist them with navigation. For example, side walls and tactile surfaces help make children feel more comfortable and guide them from one activity to another. Tactile surface changes can be used as cues to announce a new place to play or a specific destination.

· Engage all the senses. A successful inclusive park is a sensory-rich environment that engages all children. Children will be interested in parks designed to provide diverse textures, scents, sounds, movement and opportunities to explore. For example, children who are visually impaired tend to develop their skills and knowledge more through fantasy or exploratory play. Sand and water tables are a great example of a place for these kids to explore textures of sand through their fingers and sounds of splashing or spilling water. Interactive pieces that encourage pretending typically appeal to blind children, as do games like tic-tac-toe. With large, raised “X’s” and “O’s,” blind children can play with the rest of the children. Creating music with plastic drums, chimes, bells and megaphones is fun and educational for all kids.

· Allow time and space for recovery. While play is fun for all, it is important to provide quiet rest areas, too. Kids who need a lot of body strength to maneuver across a climber or who become overwhelmed by too much excitement or noise need to have a place to sit and recover. Also, many children need time and space to reflect on what they have accomplished or to desensitize themselves. Quiet time, or a “sanctuary,” is as important as any piece of equipment for kids with disabilities. Include kid-sized sitting areas and spaces for children to reflect on what they have learned or to desensitize themselves.

· Foster a sense of security. Parents of all children - and especially parents of children with special needs - are concerned about security and safety. Parents need to feel that an area is safe before allowing their children to explore on their own, and exploration without a parent’s help is vital for children to develop independent skills. But a sense of security is about more than surrounding a playground with a fence. Rather, design elements can be used to enhance safety while also improving aesthetics. For example, winding sidewalks, benches and strategically placed landscaping can heighten security by defining the play area.

Sightlines are also a key element in creating a sense of security. Parents want to let their children play with other children as long as they remain visible. Providing areas where parents can observe their children without being in the play area allows children to strengthen their social skills and gain independence while assuring parents their children are safe.

Every child deserves engaging parks

Communities across the country are becoming more and more aware of the importance of considering the needs of people with disabilities in everyday life--in buildings and stores, in transportation, in the classroom. And now, that conversation is taking place in parks and on the playground, too.

Every child deserves the opportunity to reap the physical and social benefits of parks. The key to creating successful, active, inclusionary parks is to provide engaging activities that are accessible and appealing to children of every ability.

Gary E. Warner, ASLA, AICP is a senior associate with Orlando-based community planning and design firm Glatting Jackson Kercher Anglin, Inc. He can be reached via e-mail at

C. Elisabeth Manley, RLA, is an associate landscape architect for the firm. She can be reached via e-mail at