Universally designed playground has more use

Applying universal design principles to playgrounds means that more people will use them. That’s what a study of three playgrounds in the United States found. Two were standard playgrounds meeting ADA standards, and one was universally designed. Result? Not only did the universally designed playground receive higher use, there was also more physical activity overall.

There are many types of disability which means definitions of universal design are open‐ended. Consequently the outcomes are difficult to measure quantitatively. But not impossible. At least the move to make playgrounds more accessible has shifted assumptions that universal design is limiting.

100% of the elevated play components that are typically part of a modular play structure must be on the accessible route. But ADA standards require only 50%.

Two children, one in a wheelchair, enter a cubby area.

The researchers set the benchmark for universal design as going beyond the minimum ADA requirements. Doubling the ADA requirements became one of the measures. So where the ADA requires 50% of play structures to be an an accessible route, a universally designed playground requires 100%.

The three playgrounds in the study were of a similar character. Each had equipment of the same type and manufacturer, and the surfacing was the same including the colour.

The main aim of the research was to evaluate the outcomes of playgrounds designed using universal design principles. The secondary aim was to explore the physical activity levels in activity areas in parks and playgrounds.

What they found

The findings support the hypothesis that applying universal design principles can result in higher rates of playground use than those only meeting ADA standards. This counters the notion that such playgrounds are only for those living with a disability. The universally designed playground in this case study was found to be attractive to all users, It offered the same level of fun and challenge for children. The additional playground activity lead to increased physical activity in other areas of the park.

Another finding was that adults used the playground zones more than the researchers expected. Making them more comfortable for accompanying adults was the key. This last point is something that the Australian Everyone Can Play Guideline factored in from the beginning. Playspaces are for everyone regardless of age.

The title of the article is, Universal Design in Playground Environments: A Place‐Based Evaluation of Amenities, Use, and Physical Activity. It contains a good deal of statistical analysis and is useful for persuading funding bodies to take up a universal design approach to playgrounds and parks.

From the abstract

This study compares the impact of universal design on three playground environments, one of which was universally designed. While universal design principles are increasingly used in playground design, most prior work has focused on people with disability. This study explores the impact on all users regardless of their age or disability status.

We used a tool that records observations in three playgrounds and compared use and physical activity in the playground environments. User location and characteristics were recorded on a plan map of the park and the playground. The data were collected from 70 randomized observation periods per park (210 total for the three parks) recording 12,520 total users.

While the total user counts were similar across the three parks, the universal design playground showed 82% more users than in the mean of the comparison playgrounds. The study also evaluated the place‐based effects of park elements on the intensity of park use and physical activity.

The playground areas produced 46% of park use, with the highest percentages of active use (29.2%) in the parks as a whole demonstrating the contribution playground environments make to overall park use and physical activity.

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