Outdoor play is an important opportunity for children to learn, grow and develop life-skills. Children with any level of developmental ability need sensory stimuli to get the most out of their playtime. There are plenty of ways to turn an ordinary playground into an interactive, safe and entertaining area for all children to enjoy and benefit from.
A sensory-rich environment is especially important for children with certain disabilities like visual impairment or a developmental disorder such as autism. It’s important for communities to acknowledge the need for playgrounds that are designed to help all children develop. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that an estimated one in 68 school-aged children has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. About one in six or 15 percent of children aged three through 17 have one or more developmental disabilities.
Playgrounds that offer an abundance of engaging sensory activities invite children to interact with each other and develop new skills, regardless of their current abilities. We are going to look at the importance of an inclusive playground, and how to design a play area that encourages learning for all. We’ll also talk about the best playground flooring and the safest surface materials for children with disabilities.
Every child deserves to play, grow and socialize. An inclusive, sensory-rich playground benefits children and the community.
Why Inclusive Play Is Important
Inclusive play means that no child is excluded from playing with other children, regardless of their ability. Play that is fun and stimulating is vital to a child’s development whether they have a disability or not because all children learn through their senses.
Inclusive play is important because it teaches children to appreciate and respect differences in each other. It provides a safe space for children to interact, take turns and share experiences. Inclusive play helps disabled children build confidence and develop social skills. With inclusive play, children with disabilities aren’t made to feel abnormal or like they don’t deserve the same opportunities as other children.
Also, when a disabled child does not have access to a playground, they might be labeled by peers as being unable to contribute. The child involved might then carry this outlook into adulthood. An inclusive playground places all children on an equal level and helps them develop skills that consider and respect diversity.
Play benefits all children by helping them:
- Physical activity helps children develop motor skills, flexibility and balance. It also helps to prevent obesity and improves lung and heart functioning.
- Playing builds self-confidence by encouraging children to take risks such as climbing or swinging. Children experience a sense of accomplishment and higher self-esteem when they overcome challenges and fears. Imaginative play allows children to express various emotions.
- Children learn how to interact with other children at a playground. They learn important skills that will help them through life, such as negotiation and cooperation skills. They also practice self-control when playing with others.
- Play develops language, reasoning, problem-solving and decision-making skills. At a playground, children can safely learn about consequences and risk.
Every child deserves a chance to learn and develop new skills, but not every child learns in the same way. An inclusive playground is necessary for a healthy community and helps ensure every child is given the opportunity to play and grow into well-rounded and empathetic adults.
Ways to Vary the Sensory Experience in an Inclusive Playground
You may be wondering what exactly makes a playground sensory-rich. There are a lot of different ways you can create an environment that stimulates the senses, and it requires a little creativity and understanding of how a child’s mind works.
When adding activities or equipment to your playground, you’ll also want to consider how different disabilities affect a child’s interpretation of certain stimuli. Always make sure your inclusive playground offers equipment and toys that are easily accessible for children in wheelchairs.
Your playground can be designed to stimulate and develop the following senses to benefit children on any level of cognitive or physical ability:
Tactile refers to our sense of touch and pressure, mostly felt by the skin. Children can stimulate their tactile sense in a playground that offers lots of different textures to touch. You might include a sandbox, blocks of different materials, or safe forms of water play. Include objects with latches, chains and knobs for added variety.
Tactile stimulation is especially helpful in developing skills in children with autism or who are highly sensitive to touch and have difficulty coping with sensations. Tactile play can help autistic children become familiar with a particular sensation and helps them process their emotions in response to sensory input. Water can soothe some children who are easily overstimulated.
Fun-to-touch toys and equipment also benefit children with visual impairment. It’s important to use a variety of textures and materials, to help develop tactile sense. For children with visual impairment, their tactile sense is how they connect with the world and process information.
Make sure a sandbox or sand table has wheelchair access, and other materials are placed at various heights where all children can reach them.
Also, consider adding textured flooring to your playground. Gradually switch from one surface material to another to help stimulate tactile sense underfoot. Add a bumpy rubber matting to help children locate the edge of the playground or to add contrast to play areas. Mark edges with yellow so children can be aware of surface changes. You might want to use a distinct texture at the edge of potentially hazardous areas, such as swing locations, as a sign of caution.
Our vestibular system helps us maintain balance. It tells us our body’s relationship to our surroundings and whether we are falling, leaning or standing still. Children love to experiment with vestibular sensations through swinging and spinning, and it helps develop their coordination and balance.
Children with sensory processing disorder and autism may be easily overwhelmed by vestibular sensations, and some may be afraid of such movements. Other children may seek constant vestibular stimulation. An inclusive playground can be designed to accommodate all children by providing equipment such as swings, toys that let children spin, seesaws and slides of different heights. Equipment that lets children experiment with walking and balancing, like a non-slip balance beam, also helps develop the vestibular sense.
To make sure children are safe using vestibular-stimulation equipment, use engineered wood fiber (EWF) for the surface beneath riding and bouncing toys, beams, ladders and other climbing structures. EWF is an impact-absorbing and slip-resistant surface that will help protect a child’s fall better than any other playground flooring material.
Proprioception is the body’s ability to sense itself. Children with sensory processing disorder, autism and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) might have trouble knowing where their bodies are in space and recognizing physical boundaries when playing with other children.
Activities that target proprioceptive input can help children improve their proprioceptive sense. Anything that requires a child to work their muscles and joints, such as climbing bars, bouncing or crawling through an obstacle course, can help calm children who are easily overstimulated by sensory input, and it can help children who need more stimulation to focus and learn.
Use a wheelchair swing or moving bridge to help children with physical disabilities stimulate their proprioceptive sense.
Our sense of smell helps us determine what we like and what we don’t like in our environment. We use this sense to help us connect to our world. We can use our sense of smell to evoke memories, too. Scents have the power to trigger memories better than images.
Encourage children to explore, build positive connections and strengthen their ability to focus by engaging their sense of smell. Help them experience an awareness of different scents, and give them a place to learn about scents they like and smells they’d rather avoid.
You can build a sensory garden near your playground or include fragrant plants in your landscaping. The sensory garden doesn’t need to be big. You could simply have a window box of flowers or a small herb garden for children to experience.
If you decide to create a garden with a pathway, make sure paths are wide enough for wheelchair access. WoodCarpet Bonded 1 from Zeager Bros., Inc is a great option for safe, natural trails, and it is an American with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliant surface. WoodCarpet trail allows for easy access for all children, provides a firm eco-friendly surface and is easy to maintain.
In a garden, you have more freedom to experiment with different ground surfacing, as long as the ground is smooth and easy to navigate with a mobility device. Consider incorporating brick or smooth stone, even glass mosaic to sections of the walkway for extra visual and tactile stimulation. Use soft, colored mulch in the landscaping to create a textured look and to surround the path with padding.
Include plants of various shapes, colors and textures. Make sure to fill your sensory garden with flowering plants, herbs and shrubs that are highly fragrant, such as lavender, rosemary or mint. Fruits and vegetables allow children to associate scents with foods they like to eat, or foods they don’t like. Add windchimes to trees to enhance the experience.
Stimulating the olfactory sense should not be ignored in your sensory-rich playground. Including a variety of colorful, aromatic trees and flowers adds an unforgettable dimension to the playspace.
Help children experience cause and effect by giving them the tools to experiment with sound. They can also build communication skills by observing how other children react to different sounds. Have objects that beep and squeak, bells and sticks to create variety. A musical sidewalk or a large xylophone can also be fun ways for kids to explore their auditory sense.
A rich auditory experience enhances playtime for children with visual and cognitive impairment. Keep in mind that noise can be over-stimulating for some children, especially children with sensory sensitivity. Place shelters throughout the playground as a retreat for children who feel overwhelmed. Tunnels and domes may help children who need space feel more relaxed without removing them from the play area.
Design a playground that uses bright colors, but try not to cause overstimulation with colors or visuals. A visually stimulating and balanced play area encourages fun, inspires creativity and sparks conversation. Varying colors can be used to help children notice changes in height and surface throughout the playground, too.
Experiment with placing colorful rubber mats and tiles for flooring options that cushion falls and are visually pleasing. Consider unitary surfaces like pour-in-place rubber. Rubber flooring is available in an assortment of different colors and can add to the overall visual appeal of a playground for the entire community.
For more textured and colorful playground flooring, you might also consider synthetic grass. Made from nylon and/or PE, synthetic grass resembles real grass but without the maintenance. It also provides excellent fall protection, and is resilient in tough weather. You can design a colorful surface and choose from colors such as dark blue and red.
How Surfacing Affects the Playground Experience
Almost 70 percent of playground injuries are related to falls to the surface. More than 20,000 children experience a traumatic brain injury at a playground each year. It’s important to consider these stats when choosing a proper playground surface. A fall onto a shock absorbent surface is less likely to cause a head injury than a hard surface, but any surface can lead to some injuries from a fall. Never use concrete, asphalt or dirt for fall zones.
Here’s a look at the advantages and disadvantages of different playground surface materials. As you’ll see, the wrong material can add a lot of risk to playtime, and the right material can help ensure safety for all.
Non-compliant Loose-Fill Surfaces
Loose-fill surfaces such as pea gravel, sand or large wood chips are easy to install and affordable but are not ADA compliant. People with physical disabilities simply cannot not traverse over these types of surfaces because these surfaces are not compact and stable. Sand, for example, becomes too hard to absorb impact from falls and is an unsafe playground surface.
Also, loose-fill surfaces require more maintenance to ensure there is enough depth to prevent injuries. These types of surfaces need borders to keep loose pieces from scattering into surrounding areas. Sharp or dangerous objects can sink into sand, for instance, and become a hidden hazard — another reason to avoid loose-fill.
Engineered Wood Fiber
A compliant and more cost-efficient option in the loose-fill surface category is engineered wood fiber (EWF). Unlike large wood chips, EWF is ground to a fibrous consistency so that it knits together and compacts into a firm stable surface. When EWF is maintained at a thickness of 12 inches, it can absorb impacts up to 12 feet. EWF is also all-natural, and you know if it is manufactured by a Zeager-approved facility, it comes from fresh, virgin wood that cannot be made into lumber. We do not manufacture EWF from tree species that may be endangered.
It’s a good idea to ask your EWF supplier where their raw material comes from since some manufacturers use recycled pallets. Recycled pallets could contain harmful chemicals and metals like nails or staples. Ask for test results showing it has passed ASTM F2075 — the standard test that checks for hazardous materials.
EWF is easy to install and very affordable, but requires maintenance in high-use areas to keep its qualities intact. Placing wear mats at ground level components like the one used here can keep a clear floor space. This will allow a child in a mobile device to safely play while giving the surface a different feel than the surrounding area.
Synthetic Unitary Surfaces
Unitary surface materials such as pour-in-place rubber, rubber tiles and synthetic grass are easy to maintain and absorb falls from up to 10 feet in most cases. Rubber surfaces come in a variety of colors and designs for visual stimulation. Synthetic grass feels more natural than rubber products and is also available in different colors. You can use a combination of rubber and synthetic grasses to increase the tactile stimulation for your child.
The downside to unitary surfaces is that they require professional installation and therefore have higher costs upfront. These types of surfaces can also get very hot in summer months, so installing shade structures can help allow more play time in the afternoons.
Also, rubber products tend to get hard over time due to ultraviolet sun rays, temperature and usage. It is highly recommended that playground owners get their surfaces impact-tested at initial installation as well as every three to five years. The surface may look fine on the top, but could be less resilient below.
When choosing surfacing for your playground, you want to make safety a priority. Some other factors you’ll want to consider when choosing the right material are:
- Playground location. Keep drainage in mind.
- Playground design
- Playground equipment
- Access to playground
- Playground security
- Amount of use
- Average age of playground users
- Height of equipment
Whichever surface you choose, make sure there is a smooth transition between different surface areas to help prevent tripping.
We Are Your National Playground Solution
Need assistance choosing the right surfacing for your sensory-rich playground? We offer a variety of safe, durable and cost-effective playground surfacing options — from synthetic grass to engineered wood fiber. Our products are accessible, natural and easy to maintain.