Ready, steady, play!

Andrew Wood of ESP Play discusses the importance for the physical and mental health of children of planning inclusive and high quality playgrounds

Ensuring equitable access to inclusive and high quality play spaces is crucial for nurturing healthy, resilient communities.

Sadly, the provision of play facilities is sometimes treated as a box-ticking exercise and this can have long-term negative ramifications for children and the communities in which they live.

Research commissioned by ESP Play shows profound disparities in local authority playground investment and access from region to region and from town to town. This is potentially damaging for many children as it hinders their development and exacerbates inequalities.

Professor Helen Dodd, trustee of Play England and leading child psychologist, said: “Play is essential to a happy, healthy childhood. Having time and space to play gives children the opportunity to express themselves, to explore, to be physically active, to take risks and to have freedom to choose what they want to do.”

She added: “Children who spend more time playing, especially outdoors and adventurously, have better mental health and are more physically active.”

“Children’s play opportunities are affected by the environments around them, with some environments facilitating active, adventurous, engaged play, and others discouraging play. It is therefore really important that children have access to places that support their play such as playgrounds.”

With all the research showing how important access to outdoor play is, it’s vitally important that architects and developers invest in the right space and equipment to provide the best long-term outcomes for children and communities.

Playground design has evolved considerably over the past 30 years. The innovation and improvement that we see now has only come through detailed research and by listening to children and observing them at play. Continuous research into play benefits and child development is integral to best practice and is a fundamental cornerstone of the best approach to play area design.

By providing children with a place to play, society is actively encouraging children to develop and grow, while allowing them to have fun.

A well-designed and well-equipped playground not only allows children to participate in high quality physical activity, but also encourages them to learn while they play. Outdoor play helps promote physical activity, excitement, social skills and positive behavioural changes, while promoting multi-sensory engagement.

It is also important to note that, with thousands of children throughout the UK having physical disabilities or special educational needs, it’s vital that there is better access to accessible play.

Inclusive play designs include products and equipment which allow children of all abilities to get involved on the playground. Inclusive play equipment offers choice and challenge, enabling children to play, laugh and learn together.

Playground designers should be dedicated to inclusive play, and strive to make all playgrounds inclusive to all children, regardless of ability, age, and gender. Children with restricted movement should not be left out of any playground.

However, some are denied the opportunity to play because the design of the playground or the equipment on offer creates a barrier for them. Children who use a wheelchair, for example, may face accessibility issues, whereas autistic pupils might find busy spaces overbearing. A truly inclusive playground would ensure that all children could participate in outdoor play.

The first thing to consider when looking at playground accessibility is whether children can get into and move around the space with ease. For this, pathways need to be wide enough to accommodate wheelchairs, be smooth and have gentle inclines to raised areas.

Not only should pathways enable children to get in and move around with ease, they should also help children in wheelchairs and those who have difficulty walking get directly to any of the equipment. Ideally, when creating the playground, you should locate popular equipment near the playground entrance or close to any pathway.

Another important consideration is playground surfacing. Some surfacing materials make it much easier for wheelchair users to move around on while others provide safer surfaces to fall on. Make sure you use the most appropriate surface for each area of your playground.

When designing playgrounds with inclusivity in mind there are six elements that need to be considered:

  • movement: helps children to be aware of their joints and muscles;
  • balance: contributes to physiological symmetry;
  • smell: contributes to the enjoyment by enhancing social activities;
  • touch: helps children learn the differences in texture, traction and pressure;
  • sound: helps cognitive progression by developing the ability to process;
  • sight: aids and develops the visual sense allowing children to get the most out of their surroundings.

If designers are using these elements to inform their design strategy, then they are able to optimise all of the space and budget, in order to give the best outcomes for the children and the communities in which we all live.

Andrew Wood is CEO at ESP Play