Heading down to the playground for an afternoon, especially in the summer, sounds like the ideal opportunity for kids. Whether you like the slides, the swings, or the merry-go-round, playgrounds offer a great place to play, get active and socialize with children and adults. Unfortunately, for many disabled children, that playground fence may as well go all the way around, because playgrounds are rife with access issues, like gates that are too narrow, a lack of safe pathways and inappropriate playground surface materials. Parents, however, are pushing to change that, because they’re tired of seeing their children sidelined.
The benefits of play for children have been extremely well-documented. It’s a critical part of neurocognitive development in the early years, where even silly activities like picking up objects and dropping them, matching games and rolling around on the floor are helping kids develop motor skills and needed neurological connections. Play is important for developing literacy, social skills and the ability to interact with other children and adults in productive, engaging ways.
It also creates a low-pressure environment for learning about science and other disciplines so children are primed to pay attention, learn and be engaged when they’re in the classroom.
These positives of play apply to all children, not just nondisabled ones. Engagement in play can also help disabled children develop and improve their motor and verbal skills, making it an important form of therapy that will help them live more independently later in life. It also helps them develop a sense of imagination and complex cognitive skills. Historically, the needs of disabled children often weren’t considered when it came to play, in part because people wrote off the value of play. Today, that’s changing, with many authorities and parents recognizing that play can help their children succeed — which is why it’s so important for disabled children to be able to enter playgrounds and other designated play spaces.
There’s also a clear benefit to integrated spaces, also known as mixed or inclusive environments, where nondisabled children and disabled children learn, play and interact alongside each other. Being exposed to disabled children reduces stigma and increases acceptance among nondisabled children by taking the mystery and fear out of disability. Within the realm of play, shared play spaces also provide a valuable experience for nondisabled children and parents who think that disabled children can’t keep up or aren’t capable of enjoying play. Creating inclusive programs can be challenging, but many agree that it’s worth it.
Denying disabled children access to playgrounds is a civil rights violation and a human rights one, telling such children that they don’t belong in public spaces and shouldn’t expect accommodations. In addition to being illegal in the United States (the ADA has strict requirements about accessibility in public spaces), this is also incredibly disheartening and demoralizing for disabled people, who become socialized to feel apologetic and awkward about accommodations. When children are accommodated without question, it gives disabled people more confidence, as they grow up accepting the idea that they have a right to be in public and to request alterations to public environments if they’re unsuitable for some reason.
It’s also unfair to keep kids of any ability level out of a playground, given the great opportunities for personal enrichment, building friendships and just having fun. Disabled children are often isolated, and excluding them from shared social spaces like this reinforces that isolation, limiting interaction opportunities to spaces like the classroom — for students who are lucky enough to live in areas where schools are integrated. For parents of disabled children, the experience can be equally isolating, yet another reminder of their difference from other parents.
Parents interested in making playgrounds fully accessible are using a variety of tools to address the issue. They know that budgets are tight, and disability services are often first on the chopping block, so they’re moving to protect funding, and raise it when necessary. They’re also supporting the formation of advisory panels and commissions to offer advice not just on physical accessibility, but how to make playgrounds welcoming to autistic children and children with other cognitive and intellectual disabilities who might need less obvious accommodations. (Like a quiet space to retreat to when they feel overwhelmed.) Their work joins a long legacy of disability rights activism to open up all spaces — even those that seem unimportant — to everyone.
Photo credit: Matthias Ripp.