By Marcus Veerman, Founder Playground Ideas and co-creator of Nüdel Kart (References include the Playground Ideas “Inclusive” Manual and “Humanity and Inclusion” Organisation)
I’ve been designing playgrounds for over a decade, and one of the biggest challenges is designing spaces that are all inclusive and truly all abilities. This means more than just simplistic solutions like wheelchair ramps, but truly creating spaces for all children to play and learn together in a safe environment that still challenges each and every person regardless of their ability both physically, cognitively, socially or otherwise.
While they are often used interchangeably, “Inclusive Design” is different from “Handicapped-Accessible Designed”. The latter begins by looking at a child’s disability first and designing spaces to compensate for that challenge. While this perspective is often well-intentioned, it can result in playgrounds that are exclusively designed for children with limited abilities, (particularly physical), and in doing so can further ostracise children with disabilities from their peers. In addition, when design only seeks to compensate for disability to allow them to engage in “normal“ activity, it ignores children’s unique strengths and misses the opportunity to create a space that can encourage children to engage in challenging, even reasonably risky activities that build resilience, mastery, and a positive image of self. A good example of this type of thinking is children who have lagging skills that cannot be physically seen such as children on the spectrum. These children are not disabled in the traditional sense and in fact often have incredible strengths in certain areas, and we need to consider the whole of the child if we are going to design well.
So how do you ensure a play space is inclusive? Design that is inclusive begins by first looking at children’s strengths, instead of their disabilities being front of stage. All children have strengths and by taking into consideration the range of different strengths within a community, you’ll be better equipped to design a unique, engaging, safe, beautiful and of course, fun playground that brings children together, instead of dividing them by ability. By designing for inclusion, and beginning from a perspective of “strengths,” you can create play spaces that are designed with everyone in mind and that challenge and support children with a wide range of abilities. For example, a blind child’s strengths are their heightened sense of touch, hearing and smell. How could these senses be better used in a playground for both sighted and non-sighted children? Children of different ages have widely varying abilities. For example, a ladder or fire-person's pole that is used with ease by a 7 year old, may be a neck-breaking deathtrap to a toddler. So regardless of whether you have children with ‘disability’ in your community, all play spaces have to deal with children whose abilities are very different.
It is human instinct to try and categorise and differentiate. This can be helpful in some areas of our life, but when we categorise people by ability, it can lead to isolation and exclusion – and this can manifest as a bad playground design. A playground with a handicap-accessible slide and a regular slide conforms to a bias we have to categorise people of different abilities and separate them. It is easier to build two slides than it is to think of a way to build a new form of slide that allows children of all abilities to play together on the same playground equipment. We want to look for new ways that children of different abilities can intersect with each other. When a feature has different challenges associated with it and a range of difficulty, children with different levels of ability will interact with it and each other.
When designing for inclusive play, consider how you might create spaces of “intersection” on the playground. “Intersections” create opportunities for children of all abilities to interact and play together.
As a result of considering all of the above points, In 2018, I started to develop a new playground and learning concept called the Nüdel Kart. I felt like there was something missing and one of the key considerations in this journey was something that was truly all abilities as well as being non-gendered and open to children from any cultural background.
From the very initial sketches, the Nüdel Kart design focused on children’s strengths and allowed them to be challenged and develop at their own pace. How? Well, when children are using a Nüdel Kart, quite simply they build the playground on the fly and they can experiment with different designs as they go, to create something that works with their strengths. If they try something and it doesn’t work then they can simply deconstruct it and start over, and through this process they are learning so many critical skills with their peers. Skills like empathy, as you need to create a space that works for everyone if you want to keep playing with them, you also learn negotiation as different people desire different levels of risk or want different rules in the game. It is these foundational skills which we know are so important to navigating life towards success regardless of what area of life you choose to specialise in and what ever abilities you have.
In a nutshell, Nüdel Kart is a deconstructable, mobile play cart that can transform any space into a creative, loose parts, play space for 3-12 year olds.
An inclusive play space is accessible. Its location and organisation should allow access by children, parents and community members with functional limitations. Accessibility is not just about physical barriers though and it should also address other barriers linked to psychology, gender, culture, socioeconomic status, communication, policies, facilities and financial resources.
Inclusive play spaces have multiple levels of challenge, offering a growth of activity for everyone. Children with functional limitations should be challenged at their own level, not a level someone else has decided is appropriate for them.
Inclusive play spaces allow grouping of activities, (grouping together different types of activities with varying levels of challenge), inviting engagement between children of different abilities, encouraging them being in proximity to one another, building relationships and understanding.
Inclusive play spaces offer play activities that have been selected and laid out in such a way that children with various abilities can engage and benefit from play.