“More time playing outside is linked to much higher levels of happiness.”
Worlds of Influence, Understanding What Shapes Child Well-Being in Rich Countries, UNICEF Office of Research, Innocenti, Florence, 2020
Much of the outdoor educational space design philosophy is subjective. Depending on the needs of the specific school or community, the designers involved, funding availability and source influence, among other factors, can have a large impact on the direction the space takes. However, in that same vein, there are several considerations in the design process that are objective. The fact that ALL children need more time outdoors has been researched and proven time and again, and the fact that outdoor spaces should be designed with inclusivity of all users in mind is not only researched and founded, but even legally regulated to an extent.
“Accessibility” is an industry buzzword that is often misunderstood. In actuality, an accessible playground, as is regulated by the law according to the guidelines set by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), is the minimal standard in inclusive design. In contrast, outdoor educational space designs should take on more than just a minimal “accessible” standard and reach for the goal of designing spaces that are truly inclusive, most simply defined as spaces where not everyone can do everything, but everyone can do something. Inclusivity looks beyond the minimum physical space requirements to specifically target people who might otherwise be excluded or marginalized, such as those having physical or intellectual disabilities or belonging to other minority groups. It is so important to always create a space that is not just accessible for everyone but provides equal access and opportunity for people to engage with one another while engaging with the space.
When we think of inclusivity in the outdoor design space, often what comes to mind is a playground filled with ramps and wheelchair access points. While these are great to incorporate and come into play in creating ADA compliant spaces, our industry partners at Kompan have contributed countless resources into researching what inclusive design spaces truly need to appropriately reflect the relevant demographics of children with disabilities. According to a Unicef study, one in ten children worldwide have a disability.
According to the National Center for education statics in 2019:
39,208 children between the ages of 0-18 have an orthopedic impairment. This accounts for less than 1% of disabilities served under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
The most common and fastest growing disability group in children is those with autism and sensory processing disorders. About one in every 100 children will be diagnosed with one of these, or around 761,625 students.
Our outdoor educational spaces have a unique opportunity to not only meet children with disabilities where they are and provide an outlet for play, but to design areas that specifically reach children with disabilities and provide elements that target therapeutic, behavioral, and learning needs for all children. Different tactiles such as body pressure, calming areas, visual changes on surfacing, tangible elements that move, responsive body pressure elements, or rocking, swinging and spinning motion elements can all not only help create a calming effect on children with disabilities, but also meet specific learning and physical developmental needs.
For example, below is a play element called the Boomerang. The different levels and physical elements help create multiple opportunities for play including climbing, gliding, and bouncing, while the countless ground level and upper-level activities invite participation by any age or ability level. The nets form dips and valleys stimulating cross coordination and balance mobilities while also helping develop spatial awareness. While at first glance this wouldn’t necessarily scream “inclusive play element!,” it does in face provide an inclusive variety of ways to engage in play.
Another example of an inconspicuous inclusive play element is the spinner disc. This multi-user element rotates for fun and tumble play, creates a socially active environment for users to enjoy play in close proximity, and is responsive to children’s movements when pushed or pulled. It can also be used in a sitting, standing, or even lying down position, welcoming children with mobility issues to participate in the fun.
The graphic below demonstrates several strategies that have been historically implemented in design spaces and helps us visualize what a truly inclusive play experience can mean.
Exclusion completely leaves out marginalized groups of people, segregation creates a separate space where those with disabilities or impairments can participate apart from the majority, integration creates specific spaces within the design whole that serve the disabled, while inclusion creates a design and space where people of all ages and disabilities can participate in a corporate and social environment.
It is of the utmost importance
to always create a space that is not only accessible or even integrated, but that encourages true inclusivity and promotes social interaction for all abilities. This benefits children with all different abilities by learning social skills, self-esteem, compassion and introduces them to human diversity in a fun and non-dramatic environment.