Play is a Child’s Work and a Civil Right, Too

Play has been called a child’s work as it’s how children learn to interact with each other and the world. As of March 15, 2012, play became a civil right when the federal government ruled that access to playgrounds is covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Just as workplace discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, age and disability is prohibited under federal law, so are children with physical disabilities guaranteed equal access to play areas — meaning that these should not only have swings with high backs so kids with conditions like spina bifida can use them. They also need ramps, surfaces that wheelchairs can readily move through, transfer stations so kids can get out of a wheelchair onto a play structure and even more.

Kids without disabilities can use such playgrounds too; accessible playgrounds create an inclusive environment for all kids.

Most U.S. Playgrounds Still Do Not Meet Accessibility Standards

That’s the ideal. But in practice, many if not most U.S. playgrounds lack such accommodations.

If a town renovates an existing playground or builds a new one, the law now requires that it have adaptations meeting specific accessibility standards for kids with physical disabilities. But as NPR found, paying for these is beyond what many local governments can afford.

Indeed, concerns about costs led the federal regulatory negotiation committee who drafted accessible playground requirements to make some compromises, says NPR:

“One of them was allowing those troublesome loose surfaces as an alternative to better, but more expensive, smooth surfaces. Another one was not requiring ramps on smaller playgrounds.”

Just as families have played a key role in getting children with disabilities an education that accommodates their challenges, so are they taking the lead in pushing communities to build accessible playgrounds. As Jonny Fisher, the father of 7-year-old Brooklyn, who has spina bifida, explains:

“We have ramps leading up to all the play structures. You have the solid surfaces throughout the entire playground. With walkers or wheelchairs it’s very easy to go around this.”

Sand or wood chips aren’t navigable by wheelchairs; a smooth, resilient surface that is can cost around $150,000.

At 15,000 square feet, this playground is something most municipalities wouldn’t have the funding to build on their own. The Fishers, who live in Pocatello, Idaho, were able to raise $580,000 from grants and individual donations, bake sales and garage sales.

Play is a Civil Right

In contrast, a family with two children with disabilities, the Sotos in Richmond, California, has to drive almost an hour to find a playground that 3-year-old Emmanuel, who has spina bifida, can use. That’s no small task for his mother, Teresa, who cleans houses in the mornings and cares for his teenage sister, who has Down Syndrome, in the afternoons.

“Recreation was one of the places where the civil rights movement started, with desegregating pools and desegregating lunch counters and movie theaters. These were not unimportant,” says Eve Hill, a civil rights lawyer with the Justice Department.

It’s imperative that all children with disabilities, whatever the economic income of their families and communities have access to play spaces with the adaptations they need. If not, play and playgrounds could become yet another sign of inequality in America.

Photo from Thinkstock


Angela Roquemore
Angela Roquemore5 years ago

Ouch... .

Bryna Pizzo
Bryna Pizzo5 years ago

Thank you again for the exceptional post!

Donna Ferguson
Donna F5 years ago


Cynthia F.
Cyn F5 years ago

Hopefully, with time, playgrounds are built such that all children have access to them. Thanks for sharing, Kristina.

Nichola Mac D
Nichola Mac D5 years ago

great article, hopefully raising awareness around this issue might help to address it

Shanti S.
S S5 years ago

Thank you.

Mary T.
Mary T5 years ago

Thank you for the article - Richmond is lacking with ADA certified parks, hopefully the city will fix their parks since Richmond does have lots of children and adults with disablities. surprised that our Green Pary mayor hasn't gotten the parks fixed, a lot of the major streets are wheelchair accessible

Natasha Salgado
Past Member 5 years ago


Mike Wilkinson
Mike Wilkinson5 years ago

parents of children with special needs carry a heavy that society in general may not make accommodations for.......time for us to walk in these parents shoes and show a little compassion and do the right thing......

Lindsey O.
Lindsey O5 years ago

Children definitely need play in their lives. Lots of it. And certainly disabled children need it just as much (especially since physical activity can be even more important to those with particular disabilities.)

And what I really wish more children had is unstructured play. For those in suburbia or more outlying areas, just roaming the woods or playing in the creek (my favorite activity as a child), building forts and climbing trees. Curling up under a tree to watch the insects there. It's a magical world out there and too many children today aren't allowed the free unsupervised time to learn to enjoy it - and to learn to develop their inner resources while away from others. Though, for those in urban areas, unstructured outdoor play would be harder to achieve.