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Disability Equality Specialist Support Agency

How to make sure that disabled children can participate in play

All children, whether or not they have a disability, use play spaces differently. Some are adventurous, others are more timid. In free play children choose how they play and what they play with. It is important that child with disabilities and their families feel welcome in the play space and that they can join in play with others if they want to.


Developing play spaces that can be used by all children, disabled or not, is as much about the design of the space as it is about having the “right” equipment, whether fixed or temporary. It’s important to remember that play takes place in the head: most play equipment is just the starting point for play (imagination, experimentation, creativity etc). Play equipment is not an end in itself, and its presence is no guarantee that play will actually take place.


It is useful to remember that physical play involves one or both of two sets of skills:

  • gross motor skills, such as running, climbing, swinging, rocking, sliding, spinning and balancing
  • fine motor skills, which involve more precise touch, and which are developed through activities such as sand and water play and tactile games.


In addition to enabling these activities to occur, good play spaces will also stimulate children’s senses of sight, touch, taste and smell. When children get the opportunity to play together they will often begin to practise imaginative play in a natural way.


Disabled children may need different levels of support to enable them to use play spaces. Some may need assistance to use some of the equipment. Others may benefit from the provision of some specific kinds of equipment. But what’s essential is that the available types of play experiences and activities allow the majority of children to join in most activities, without the whole play area being obviously “for the disabled” or with a “disability corner”. An accessible play space is one in which disabled children can play freely with others, whether disabled or not.


Disabled children may need help to learn their individual capacity to use the facility and to develop new ways of playing. For some children play does not emerge as naturally and informally as it does for others. Most children learn to play simply by imitating the play of others but some disabled children have to devise new ways of playing. This is easier to do if the design of the facility encourages experiment and alternative uses.


Disabled children and play: some things to consider

Play spaces should meet the play and recreational needs of all children. Different facilities placed close to each other will encourage imitation and will lead less confident children easily from one activity to the next.


Many people think disability equals wheelchair use. In fact, only a very small percentage of disabled children use wheelchairs. Many others have reduced mobility or manual dexterity, poor physical co-ordination, vision or hearing impairments, emotional and behavioural or learning difficulties. But community-based projects don’t need to know everything about all these forms of impairment or worry about “making mistakes” or “getting things wrong”. It is far more important to identify the barriers that prevent children from using play spaces and to try to find ways to overcome them.


Most manufacturers and suppliers now provide play items on a “pick-and-mix” basis. This means that playgrounds can provide a range of experiences for disabled children similar to those enjoyed by others.


Here are some general issues which may be relevant to your community-based project:

Children with physical impairments may:

  • have difficulty with long distances, steps, steep slopes
  • be unsteady on their feet and liable to slip or trip
  • have greater space requirements than other children – wheelchairs and walkers are rigid objects that can’t breathe in to squeeze through a narrow space
  • find it hard to push heavy objects
  • find it hard to hold on to or grip ropes/poles
  • be unable to use some kinds of traditional play equipment.


Much of the play equipment available in Ireland is imported from the UK, US and European companies which adhere to their own countries’ legislation and guidelines for inclusive design.


Big D-shaped hand grips, especially on moving items such as seesaws and spring rockers, help to stabilise children with poor balance. Rocking and seesawing in a sitting position requires active use of the muscles around the hips. Wide seats and good hand grips are a great help. For children who cannot sit up a gentle swing in a net, hammock or cantilever swing basket may be a possibility. Play equipment that allows children to secure themselves by leaning against something is useful for many kids with physical impairments, as well as for nervous or hesitant children.


Where possible, children who use wheelchairs every day should be facilitated to participate in play activities, out of their wheelchairs. Comfortable, ergonomically correct seating with good support at the feet stabilises the rest of the body. Seats in corners with two firm sides give support to the body and leave the hands free for manipulative play.


Among the play items you could consider providing are:

  • spring rockers with side and back support, broad footrests, and D-shaped handgrips. Some children will need to be held by a person sitting behind them
  • swings with back and side support, such as cantilever basket swings, net “hammocks”, group swings, “car seat” swings Loughrea Playground, Co. Galwayslides with transfer platforms close by, double-width slides to accommodate friend or carer,
    embankment slides
  • climbers with roomier platforms, broader stairs, handles, ground level activities and play panels, overhead bars that can be reached from a wheelchair, sloping net climbers, holes in floor for grips.
  • spinners at ground level and centrifugal types with an off-centre seat.


Many low-level crawling and climbing nets, tunnels and tubes can be used by children with significant mobility impairments. They find it easier to climb on sloping netting than on vertical netting, which also allows an adult to assist and take part in the activity.


Children with intellectual impairments

Some children may find complex layouts difficult to navigate, may have difficulty taking turns or may display what appears to be a lack of awareness of or a heightened sensitivity to other children.


Among the play items you could consider providing are:

  • ground level activities, such as balance beams, spring rockers, adventure trails
  • play items that need co-operation and eye contact, such as seesaws, group swings
  • role play activities, including a dressing up box on your playground
  • pictograms explaining how play items may be used.


Children with impaired vision may:

  • be better able to find their way with clues such as kerb edging on paths, changes in textures underfoot, colour contrast etc.
  • need to hear important information that other children might just see
  • be less active on playgrounds than sighted children. Activities which encourage repetition can help to build up their experience and confidence. Consistent colour coding will help them to identify particular activities and facilities, such as toilets and exits.


Play items with good colour contrast

Among the play items you could consider providing are:

  • mirrors
  • tactile (touch) play panels
  • play items which involve sound
  • play items with consistent and good colour contrast.

Some equipment that makes sounds can become boring quite quickly, while other sound equipment is fragile and vulnerable to vandalism. Choose robust items which can be used in more than one way (e.g. tube phones, sound reflectors).


Other impairments

Children with hearing impairments may not be able to hear other kids’ voices or adults’ instructions. They may be particularly unaware of things going on behind them, and may need to see important information that other children can hear. Well-designed play spaces and equipment, and clear, easy-to-understand information boards, may help. Safety-related audible effects, such as gravel surrounds, can be designed into the playground.


Children with autism spectrum disorder will appreciate quiet places where they can rest, hang out or play on their own. Muted colours are best here. And don’t forget that lots of children have asthma, hayfever and other breathing difficulties, so take care in choosing plants near the play space. Building for Everyone, NDA, contains a lists of plants to use or avoid.


It’s important to remember that it’s not just children who have a recognised disability who can find play spaces too challenging. Overweight, shy, gangly, frail, hesitant or nervous children, along with children who wear glasses, can also find play spaces daunting. A range of activities to choose from, ways of getting off equipment that turns out to be too scary or difficult, places to get away from other kids: all these will encourage these children to give your playground a try, and to experience success.


Play experiences for all children

Sand and water are great play materials for children of all ages and abilities. Creating a sensory space will allow children to develop their smell, taste and tactile senses.

Huts, play houses and shelters offer all children the opportunity to chill out, chat, play fantasy games, rest or be alone for a while.


Inclusive design

“Special” design features often stand out and almost advertise their difference. This doesn’t help anyone! Inclusive design is the name given to the principles of making sure that, to the greatest extent possible, places, products and services are flexible and useable by everybody in comfort and safety.


Community-based projects often find it useful to put together a short statement of commitment to the principles of inclusive design and services. It is a very handy tool to have when dealing with design professionals, suppliers of play equipment etc. Showing them your statement of commitment to inclusive design lets professionals know that you are serious about inclusion, and help to ensure that your principles are carried through to the finished product.