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Disability Equality Specialist Support Agency

Planning and designing a playground for all children to play in

Planning and designing a playground for all children to play in If you are setting up a playground you need to be sure that you make the most of the resources
available to you. The following checklist, adapted from More than Swings and Roundabouts – Planning for Outdoor Play (Children’s Play Council, 2002) may be of assistance.

  • Are the right people involved? Local authorities, partnership companies and local voluntary community groups may all have a part to play
  • How can the area be made more child-friendly and also accessible for those with disabilities?
  • Are you getting maximum benefit from the involvement of children and young people, especially disabled children?
  • Are you addressing the potential barriers, such as insurance, security, conflicting priorities?


Getting started

There is a lot more to playground design than just selecting fixed equipment from a supplier’s catalogue! Many modern items of play equipment are designed to cater for disabled users, but play equipment isn’t everything. Within a play space it’s really the equivalent of furniture in a room. It doesn’t make the whole play space.

A play area that consists of just a few items of fixed equipment in a level area of rubber matting has little to hold a child’s interest. A play area should be fun. It should be magical and should stimulate children’s imaginations. There should be sand and water, boulders and logs to play with, slopes to roll down, places to hide, things to challenge, sounds, light and colour, plants, flowers and insects.

Begin designing the play area by asking yourself:

  • Who is the play area for and how do you want the play area to feel?
  • What ages and developmental levels will it need to cater for?


Getting into the playground

A playground designed with the principle of universal access (see page 19) in mind would:

  • be on a level site, have a mixture of light and shade and not be too exposed or in a wind tunnel
  • have a path that is not too steep leading to it that is firm underfoot with no trip hazards or obstacles (these principles also apply to paths inside the play space)
  • have a gate at least 1200 mm wide, to accommodate a wheelchair (remember, some parents may also be disabled). The gate should not be too heavy. Gates should have a spring closing mechanism so that they are not open all the time. This is particularly important if the playground is to be used by children with autistic spectrum disorder
  • have signs which give tactile and pictorial information. Not all children can see or read print.


Choosing the right surface for your play area

The best play surfaces are firm, non-slip, rubberised tiles or a “wet pour” rubber crumb surface. These can be obtained in different colours and shapes, and ground game markings, such as hopscotch, can be added. Surfaces like these are suitable for wheelchair users and children with mobility impairments. They can be more expensive than other surfacing materials, however.

Never put a hard surface under any play item, no matter what its height. Loose-fill materials (e.g. sand, bark, pea gravel) are not suitable for general surfaces in inclusive playgrounds because of the barriers they present to physically-disabled children. It is OK to use them, though, in specific situations, such as sand play areas, or to put a bark surface beneath a cable runway.

It is useful to remember that by using different colours and textures to indicate circulation areas, including steps and changes of level, and areas around equipment, help vision impaired children to orientate themselves and find their way around.

Provided that it is well drained and maintained, grass is acceptable under play equipment that is less than one metre high. Most playgroups may only need a grass area, with some sand and water play, to provide a low-cost play area with high play value.


Choosing equipment for inclusive play

In choosing equipment, the most important consideration is providing access to the social experience of play for all children. No play space will have equipment which is completely compatible to every child. Factors such as age, height etc will influence the use of each aspect of the play space.


Ideally a playground should offer a sufficient range of equipment to allow use and development of both gross and fine motor skills. As many items as possible should be useable by the broadest range of children, even though they may not all use the same equipment in the same way. Children with all levels of ability should be able to find a sufficient amount of things to play with in every playground. See pages 15-19 for examples of equipment that is suitable for children with various impairments.


Of course, you will make sure that all the equipment you choose conforms to appropriate safety standards (see page 26). But remember that safety isn’t the only – or, perhaps, always the most important – issue. If the play space isn’t interesting no-one will want to play there.


As previously noted, playgrounds aren’t just about equipment. For example, they should also include quieter areas where children may hang out, relax, read or talk. Willow domes, natural areas and other spaces that are partially enclosed but open to view by adults are all suitable for this purpose. Areas like these can provide children with spaces to chill out, away from the buzz of the main play space.


And remember to include seats for adults in the playground. Seats with backrests will suit older and disabled adults. Fixed benches should be designed to allow for access by wheelchair users.


When planning the layout of the playground try to ensure that there is a “flow of play” from one item to the next. Easy access and exit will assist this flow. It is better to group age-appropriate play items together (e.g. toddlers’ items separate from those for older children) rather than having a scatter of play equipment.


Inclusive design checklist

The checklist below will help you to make sure that your playground facilitates the participation of all children. For detailed information about choosing and designing paths, gates, seating etc., consult Building for Everyone, NDA.


In your playground make sure that:

  • the path to the playground is firm, is no steeper than 1:20 and is wide enough to allow for wheelchair access
  • the gate is wheelchair accessible
  • there is a firm surface between and beneath play items
  • at least one each of the main play activities – swinging, sliding, rocking, climbing etc – is accessible to children with mobility, learning and sensory impairments
  • there is a flow of play from one item to the next
  • the equipment “finishes the loop”, so that children with mobility impairments or wheelchair users finish a play route near to where they began
  • there are ground-level play items, e.g. activity panels, mirrors, speaking tubes
  • there are on-the-ground graphics, such as hopscotch
  • colour contrast is used to distinguish entrances, access onto equipment, steps and areas such as the ends of slides and the position of swings
  • areas for different age groups are separate from each other
  • at least some seating has back and arm rests
  • sand and water play is available and accessible (in playgrounds with controlled access).

Ask yourself:

  • are there opportunities for both lone play and group play?
  • are there opportunities for creative and social play?


The fun part – buying the equipment

Once you have a general idea of what equipment you would like to provide, the next step is to look at what’s available. The Sugradh website,, includes details of Irish suppliers. Get their catalogues, have a look their websites and ask other groups running playgrounds what they would recommend for inclusive play. Quiz them about their satisfaction with the equipment and the companies which supply it. Talk to DESSA. But when you have done all that, you still have to choose. What’s the best way of doing that?


The information in this booklet will help you to choose. Consider also these points:

  • How easy is it for children with physical impairments to get on and off the equipment?
  • Does the item allow play at different heights?
  • How many different activities can a child do on each item? Flexible and adaptable equipment that can be used in a variety of ways has better “play value” than something that can only be used in one way.
  • What material is it made from? Timber play equipment is popular with children. Some suppliers offer play equipment made from very tough timber that is very difficult to vandalise, cut or burn. Many play items combine timber and metal.


Looking at the issues in this way may make choosing easier!

Common mistakes

  • Nowhere to go – ramps leading nowhere
  • No way in – all raised edges, no access
  • No way back – no possibility to get off
  • Nothing to do – accessible but dull
  • Nowhere near – designs which segregate
  • No sweat – does not provide risk or challenge
  • No, I’m not a wheelchair user – designs which assume all disabled children are in wheelchairs.


Once you’ve sorted out roughly what you want you can make a shortlist of about three suppliers. Ask them to check out your site and talk to you about your needs. If you have not already done so, show them your statement of commitment of inclusive design. They will then draw up a design. Make sure that you impress upon them that you want the playground to be accessible to children with all kinds of impairments. You can then base your final choice on how well the designs meet your needs, what after-sales support will be provided if something needs to be fixed or replaced – and, of course, the price!


The suppliers will build the playground. Depending on arrangements with the local authority, which may take over and maintain the site, the suppliers may also provide fencing, seating and signage.


When it is finished the playground will be inspected by the Irish branch of RoSPA (Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, to make sure that it meets the relevant standards before it is handed over for use. The RoSPA playground inspector in Ireland can be contacted at