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A Recipe for Access for All

Mon, 06/08/2015 - 1:01am
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A Recipe for Access for All


Barrier Free Accessible Design Requirements + Inclusive Design Principles + Thorough Safety and Risk Assessment + Accurate Plan Implementation + Ongoing Compliance Management and Practice = Universal/Inclusive Access for All

Like all good chefs, their secret to success is the thoughtful application of their acquired culinary knowledge and skills. A chef works hard over time to perfect their abilities and their recipes through their own experimentation or the knowledge gained from other chefs. They also learn and improve their craft from their own mistakes but hopefully a lot more successes. Top chefs are relentless in their search for something new and better than before. This too can be said for those of us who are practicing the art of inclusion as it applies to meeting the design objectives of a child’s play space.

Since play is an important aspect of early childhood development, it must be taken seriously. Play is the work of children, and so is design for play the serious work of the play area designer. Providing equal access to meaningful play for all, while still meeting the developmental needs of each child, can create both conflict and opportunity within the total play environment.

Another concern resulting from the design for easy access throughout the entire play area is the safety of young children who now will have the access to equipment that is not age appropriate for their ability. This can be avoided with proper adult supervision, but the safety concern is real. I believe the benefits of access for all outweigh the risk of unsupervised children in the play area. There are consequences all people face in their day to day life regardless of age. Children need to learn some of these important life lessons on a properly designed play space along with or without parental supervision. It is not fair to all concerned to deny access to play for people of all abilities because of the risk of injury due to a lack of or improper supervision. These safety issues cannot be ignored, but they should not stifle the design process. Designing a truly inclusive play area requires knowledge and expertise in many disciplines, and playground safety issues are just one part of the equal access for all equation.

In keeping with my previous analogy of top chefs and their recipes, I cannot help but use one more culinary reference to make another point. There is an old saying, “too many cooks spoil the broth.” The universal inclusive design process for public play areas serving all people should ignore this saying. In the inclusive design process, the more chefs the better. Each chef (planning committee member) has his own set of skills and experiences that when blended together can result in something magical.

The recipe for equal access for all people requires a combination of different but similar concepts and processes. When properly executed in a fair and thoughtful manner, the result is a better design solution. Good design starts with the planning process, but there must be flawless execution and follow through. This includes the plan implementation and continues throughout the life expectancy of the project to truly be successful.

Public safety is one of the most important responsibilities of any government agency, and it includes both the design process and the ongoing management of all public facilities and programs. Equal access for all people is just as important in all design considerations as public safety. The chef’s (designer’s) skillful combination of these two ingredients is required to make any good soup (an inclusive play area for all).

Combining best design principles and practices, which address and eliminate known safety issues, and architectural and program barriers should result in a safe, accessible, and inclusive facility for all.  


START WITH: The Need for Accessible Play Opportunities for All

COMBINE - Known public playground safety standards, guidelines, and best practices (ASTM F1487, 1292, 1951, 2223, 2479 and U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission Handbook)

THEN ADD - Barrier Free Accessible Design Requirements (ABA/ADA now DOJ 2010 Standard)

ADD - Inclusive Design Principles (National Center on Accessibility and Boundless Playgrounds)

COMBINE WITH - Universal Design Principles (NC State University) - MIX THOROUGHLY 

ADD - Accurate Plan Implementation (Owner’s responsibility, good plans, and specifications)

BAKE UNTIL DONE (Owner puts project out to bid to pre-qualified suppliers and contractors)


MUST CONTINUE Ongoing Compliance Management and Practice (CPSI Certification Course and Playground Maintenance Technician Course)    


The planning effort should ultimately create an attractive functional public space that embraces universal design principles resulting in an inclusive children’s play space accessible to all.


ACCESSIBILITY: The design of the play space and surrounding environment as it relates to the users and caregivers getting into, around, and out of the play area.

ACCESSIBLE PLAYGROUND: As defined in ASTM F1487-11 Standard is a playground equipment area, that, when viewed in its entirety, may be approached and entered, and provides a range of play opportunities.

ACCESSIBLE ROUTE: An Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) term referring to the pathway within the boundary of the site, which provides access for individuals with disabilities, including those using wheelchairs or mobility devices from public transportation stops, accessible parking, accessible passenger loading zones, and public streets or sidewalks to the play activity. The accessible route shall, to the maximum extent feasible, coincide with the route for the general public.

ACCESSIBLE DESIGN: Accessible design means the design meets the minimum accessibility standards.

BARRIER FREE DESIGN: A design that has removed common obstacles limiting the use of an area based on some accepted accessible design principles and practices which create safe unobstructed access. Barrier Free Design is the precursor to universal design. Inclusive design has become interchangeable with universal design.

UNIVERSAL DESIGN: Universal design goes above and beyond the standards (Accessible Design) in a way to meet the widest spectrum of users, including those who may not necessarily meet the definition of disabled to benefit from the accessible design, such as children and aging adults. Universal design was developed by a consortium of individuals with 7 guiding principles.

INCLUSIVE DESIGN: The ability to include all people – children, adults, and seniors, regardless of the physical or psychological situation, and provide everyone of all abilities access and the opportunity to move throughout and use the space safely and independently.

INCLUSIVE PLAYGROUND: An inclusive playground addresses the safety and independent needs of all people including those who have autism, intellectual disabilities, hearing impairments, cerebral palsy, spina bifida, and other disabilities. It also addresses the needs of children who are typically developing. An inclusive playground includes everyone and challenges them at their level.

PRESCRIPTIVE DESIGN: Prescriptive Design is the design of a piece of equipment or environment specific to a small user group or individual and based on a remedy to minimize or compensate for the group's or individual's functional limitation.

PRESCRIPTIVE PLAYGROUND DESIGN: Public playgrounds are designed for specific age groups, i.e. toddlers (6 through 23 months), preschool (2 through 5 years) and school-age (5 through 12 years). Each play area is required to meet the developmental needs of a specified age group based on developmental abilities and needs of that target age group. One size does not fit all. If the designer incorporates universal design principles while applying accessibility standards, the playground may be accessible but not necessarily usable by all for developmental reasons. In addition, there are safety compliance issues that must be addressed due to the needs and abilities of individuals within the intended user age group. Prescriptive use, accessibility standards, universal design principles, and safety standards for public play areas are often counterproductive to one another. A risk assessment should become a part of the planning process to help balance accessibility, safety compliance, universal and inclusive use, while still providing multiple levels of challenge to address the developmental needs of the intended user age group.

INCLUSIVE PLAYGROUND DESIGN GOAL: Provide a rich, inclusive play space where children of all abilities can grow and learn through physical, emotional, sensory, and social experiences.

Accessible design and universal or inclusive design terms are NOT interchangeable. Here is a link that explains the difference between these two terms on the National Center for Accessibility (NCA) website. http://www.ncaonline.org/education/index.shtml

“The public playground is, by far, one of the most important settings for child development. It is one of the few environments where a child has the freedom to run and jump, climb, swing and leap, yell, reign, conjure, create, dream or meditate. In this complicated world that we live in, the playground is a safe and common place for children to come together, to discover the value of play, to learn about each other, to recognize their similarities and differences, to meet physical and social challenges, to leave comfort zones and evolve into the little young people they are meant to be. It is a microcosm for life lessons, from challenge and risk to conflict resolution and cooperation. When we design for these purposes and apply the Principles of Universal Design, we design for inclusive play where every child, regardless of ability or disability, is welcomed and benefits physically, developmentally, emotionally and socially from the environment.” J. SKULSKI, NCA, UNIVERSITY OF INDIANA


Seven Principles of Universal Design by NC State University School of Design

Universal design was systematized in 1997 in the U.S. during the Civil Rights Era and represented a distillation of our communal demands for social inclusion. Legislative efforts in the U.S. have not been deemed adequate guidance to complete institutionalization of Universal Design.

Legislation and regulation must by their nature clarify the specifications of a final physical product. Universal design is rather a design approach and not some absolute one size fits all solution, measurement, or product.

These seven principles also serve to orient the entire project (concept, scope, and specifications) around the observation that human beings occur with a wide range of ability sets that also change over time.

STEP 1 – Equitable Use: The design does not disadvantage or stigmatize any group of users.

STEP 2 – Flexibility in Use: The design accommodates a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.

STEP 3 – Simple, Intuitive Use: Use of the design is easy to understand, regardless of the user’s experience, knowledge, language skills, or current concentration level.

STEP 4 – Perceptible Information: The design communicates the necessary information effectively to the user, regardless of existing conditions or the user’s sensory abilities.

STEP 5 – Tolerance for Error: The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.

STEP 6 – Low Physical Effort: The design can be used efficiently and comfortably, and with a minimum of fatigue.

STEP 7 – Size and Space for Approach and Use: Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use, regardless of the user’s body size, posture, or mobility.

NOTE: These principles were compiled by advocates of Universal Design in 1997 and are copyrighted by The Center for Universal Design, School of Design, University of North Carolina at Raleigh, NC.

Boundless Playgrounds

The Boundless Playgrounds Inclusive Design Philosophy accounts for the physical site and the user needs like in Universal Design. At Boundless they looked at inclusive design as a combination of children’s play behaviors, removing the architectural barriers, and applying the universal design principles. Their design process applied the following eight performance criteria.

Eight Principles for Inclusive Design by Boundless Playgrounds

  1. Absence of architectural barriers—a socially inviting, barrier free environment
  2. Developmentally distinct play areas supporting the predictable play behaviors of children
  3. Diversity of movement sensations and experiences
  4. Many loose manipulative parts and natural materials in the playground for children to use during each engaged play episode
  5. Opportunities to play autonomously, alongside and with peers
  6. Provision for experiencing height, being up high and viewing the world from an elevated vista
  7. Addition of semi-enclosed spots
  8. Rigorous and challenging places to play

Inclusive Playground Design Guide – 2012 Playworld Systems, Inc.

Kutska's Korner, A Commentary

Executive Director of the International Playground Safety Institute, LLC of Bend Oregon since retiring from Wheaton Parks District, IL as Director of Parks and...

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