It’s not often a conference presentation slide deck becomes a mini training course. But Mary and Sally Jeavons achieved this at the inaugural Australian Universal Design Conference. The slides show lots of different examples of inclusive, creative and adventure play.
The title of the Jeavons presentation is, Designing Play Spaces for Inclusion: Devilish details that make a difference. This presentation focused on the design of parks and play spaces and their potential for intergenerational play, social interaction and community building. And, of course, for interaction with the natural world. As Mary Jeavons said, play equipment in a neatly fenced rubber space, cannot meet all of the play needs of today’s children and families. A very useful presentation using images that tell the story.
It is not easy to successfully include “un-designed” elements into playspaces. Plantings, sand, and large river pebbles need maintenance and resistance to local residents complaining about “mess”. There are also budget considerations. With increased urban density the need for adventure play becomes more important. All children have a right to use parks and open spaces. Time to move beyond the “plonk down” catalogue swing set and slide.
The amount of space required for physical distancing due to COVID-19 highlights how valuable our public space is. An important point raised in the 2020 Canadian City Park Report. Parks form a critical backbone of community infrastructure particularly in times of stress. However, not everyone feels welcome and respected in public space. There are systemic inequities related to race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and ability. So more parks and open streets aren’t the answer to these issues, particularly at this time of a pandemic.
The City Park Report can also be read as a guide with sections with five themes:
Each theme has an Overview, Data, and Stories. The report is based on 25,000 responses to the Park People‘s 2019 report.
The Inclusion section begins with the issue of homelessness and displacement. Not something usually thought of under this heading. However, they have some interesting responses to this issue from a parks perspective. People with disability get a separate sub-section. And, of course, as usual, this topic appears at the end of the report.
Nicely presented, but fiddly to access, back and forth for the different sections. The Executive Summary provides an overview of the report.
Playspace designers have an important role to play in society. That’s because play is an essential part of human development. And as society evolves so too should playspaces. The recent move away from control and safety to adventure play offers plenty of room for creative designs. Recycled, natural or found materials rather than manufactured equipment allows for imaginative play. In line with the concepts of universal design, playspaces are evolving and designers are improving as they go. It means a lot to parents to have an inclusive playspace for their whole family.
Play is children’s “work”. They set themselves challenges and most like to take risks. It’s how they grow and develop. But not all children get the opportunity to participate in adventure play. Disadvantaged backgrounds and disability are just two reasons. Underestimating what a child can do can also be a barrier to inclusion.
We are moving from a culture of controlled play to one of letting children explore through free play. Parents of children with disability are seeking more opportunities for their child to participate in these play experiences. However, most children with disability will need adult guidance or help, so care-givers need to be considered too.
A research paper from Italy proposes that we should promote greater participation in risky play beginning by involving children with disability in the design process. The paper covers the literature on play and the benefits to health and development and the right of all children to participate. Making the play space “accessible” is necessary but insufficient to make it inclusive.
Abstract: Children show a universal propensity to perform thrilling and exciting play activities that involve some kind of risk: climbing or jumping at great heights, swinging, playing or engaging in rough and tumble play. Free risky play, which can be observed also in several mammalian species, has an evolutionary function, as it offers the opportunity to learn life skills, to master age-adequate challenges, to manage fears. Reasonable risk taking in play is a fundamental factor in gross motor, cognitive and emotional development (Sandseter, 2011). Adults’ concerns about children safety as well as social and environmental factors may severely limit children’s opportunities to engage in free risky play, compromising their overall health and wellbeing. For children with disabilities, free risky play is even more crucial than for their peers without disabilities, but they often face major barriers (e.g. lack of accessible playgrounds, overprotective attitude of caregivers) that can prevent them from fully benefiting from the opportunities afforded by this kind of play experience.The aim of this paper is to investigate the state of the art as regards studies on children with disabilities participation in free risky play, and to identify areas for further research.
Similarly to museums, a visit to a national park is an experience. So, applying universal design principles is more than just being accessible – it has to be inclusive. Mammoth Hot Springs at Yellowstone National Park is a great place for a case study. A master’s report identified four factors for inclusive national parks: accessibility, enrichment, engagement and multi-sensory experiences. The research compared and analysed several international landscape projects before devising an extended guide to the Universal Design Guide by the American Society of Landscape Architects. The document includes many illustrations and projective designs.
Project summary: “Universal design is an important, emerging practice that strives to create inclusive experiences for every person who visits a place, no matter their abilities. This report examined acts and guidelines currently used to inform the design of inclusive spaces, finding key gaps. The new guidelines were then applied to the projective design for Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park. The projective design illustrated new possibilities for amenities to support accessibility, enrichment, engagement, and multi-sensory elements, thus creating a more inclusive and immersive site experience. Although many aspects of universal design can be achieved in a site design, there are unique challenges that designers must address for each project.”
Cross makes an important point about incorporating universal design features into the concept design and not leaving to a later stage:
“Although universal design stresses creating spaces for complete user access, that may affect the preserved landscapes. Also, it is important to incorporate universal design strategies in the early stages of design. A big challenge to adding universal design components into projects is cost, but incorporating them into concept design and continuing to strengthen them in schematic and final design phases will only assert the value that they play.”
A landscape study brings together aspects of universal design and accessibility with wellbeing. Using an existing park in a Polish city as a case study, researchers had to weigh up the advantages and disadvantages of eliminating some features in favour of others. For example, the loss of a sports field in favour of a new recreational feature suited to a wider range of age groups. A sensory garden and a garden pavilion where food stands could operate are a major plus. The paper goes into some technical detail, with lots of charts showing their assessment criteria. When the remodelling of the park was complete, the final assessment phase showed increased visitation. However, getting to the park was still problematic due to the poor accessibility from nearby streets. This is a key point and something emphasised in the Everyone Can Play guideline that has the three key elements for a successful play space: Can I get there? Can I play? Can I stay?
Abstract: The therapeutic properties of landscapes are a phenomenon that is difficult to measure objectively. Designing health-affirming places for an anonymous user requires a departure from the traditional approach based on designers’ subjective, authoritarian perception of beauty towards Evidence Based Design (EBD). This paper presents a qualitative study of a section of Gdynia city center around the new city park. The universal pattern of health-affirming places was used in the study. This tool does not eliminate issues associated with the subjectivity of perception of landscape therapeutic properties, but it helps to organize the assessment process and use available scientific evidence.
The natural landscapes of Norway conjure up pictures of fjords and wilderness with steep slopes. For some people, walks and bike rides in this natural environment aren’t possible. So one municipality of 1287 residents took up the challenge to create an activity park for everyone – locals and visitors of all ages. It was managed as a joint effort between the community and private and public partners.
Residents had input into all the elements of the park including information signs and a BMX park. Local businesses were invited to tender for contracts. Some thought the investment too much. However, when tourism increased and the cafe trade increased the criticisms receded. The award winning Hamaren Activity Park now gets 10,000 visitors a year.
The article on the DOGA website provides more information: methods, observations and lots of pictures. There is also a video where the designers and users explain their experiences. It’s in Norwegian but has English captions. Below is a YouTube video without words.
Community and botanical gardens are a place of relaxation and enjoyment. They provide an opportunity to experience nature. There are many physical and mental health benefits to experience nature. Applying universal design principles in the planning a design process allows many more people to enjoy the benefits of a public garden. The American Society of Landscape Architects lists some important aspects to consider:
Frequent, flexible seating with arm and back rests throughout the garden. Seating that is light enough to be used encourages social engagement.
An obvious inclusion is to limit the level changes, but where they are necessary they should be well signed with multi-sensory wayfinding.
Toilets are a must and should be located within easy line of sight, not hidden. Clear signage throughout the garden is also a must.
Secluded areas are also helpful, not just for people with autism or other cognitive conditions, but for private contemplation.
The current theory and practice of outdoor environmental education is rarely includes the voices of marginalised people and communities. So writes Karen Warren and Mary Breunig. They argue that the historical background of white privileged males in this field still underpins current thinking. The arguments and thinking in this paper could be applied in other educational settings and the broader community. At the end of the paper they advise that instructors should use the language that students use to self-identify:
“Critically conscious use of language in educational environments can prevent the othering of students who self-identify outside normative boundaries. Asking all participants to share their preferred gender pronouns can prevent the misgendering of students. Mirroring the language that students use to name their identity allows the educator to advocate for inclusion. In a canoe trip for queer students one author recently led, participants were given an opportunity to self identify if they chose to. Even within the queer community, there was a diversity of identity – gender non-binary, lesbian, questioning ally, and trans- and cisgender gay were some of the responses. Educators aware of the power of language to oppress by renaming, disnaming, and misnaming participants will consider adopting the words students use to refer to themselves.”
Concepts of play can be designed into many different places – not just the standard urban park. Making play areas inclusive is becoming the norm now – not singling out specific play equipment for children with disability. And not calling them “all abilities” play spaces either. If they are inclusive they don’t need a special name. We need to add adults into the design as well. Younger children only get to go if an adult takes them, and that adult might have a disability. That means moving away from the modular play equipment found in catalogues as the total solution.
Sanctuary magazine has a great article on nature play in parks and home gardens titled, Playspaces: Child’s play gets serious. Touched by Olivia has achieved many of its aims and is now part of Variety. The NSW Department of Planning has followed up on this movement with the development of the Everyone Can Play guideline. They are supporting the roll out of inclusive playspaces with funding for local government for a second year.