Learning from Accessible Play Areas: Codes

By Kerwin Lee, AIA

Very few architects and designers get into designing play grounds. This is not a project scope that is presented to us often, unless it is part of a school or park. Even then, there is a learning curve on what it is all about.  There were no design criteria for play areas, much less for the disabled, other than some OSHA (safety) standards. When the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) was enacted back in 1991, there was a small section that spoke to having accessibility to recreational areas, which included play areas, but no real rules or criteria. “The Guidelines for Accessible Play Areas” were issued in 2005.

When I was growing up, playgrounds were fairly simple with swings and a climbing structure of some sort. The surface material was sometimes asphalt or just dirt. I feel lucky that I was never seriously injured on these. Play areas are pretty much the same in concept today. Sure the structures or components are more sophisticated using today’s technology, but the approach is still the same. The intent of the regulations is not focused on safety, but equality of access for a child with disabilities. Playing needs to have some levels of risk involved. This is part of the play “experience.” This adds to the excitement/challenge and aids in learning one’s limits.

One of the key parts for people with disabilities is the “play experience.” Opportunity should be available for not only play, but for socialization and learning. A child with a disability will not be able to do everything an able-bodied child can do, but should be able to experience the joy, laughter and feelings other kids have.  Being included and not excluded is the key concept.

The guidelines are available on this website.

The guidelines address the following:
Accessible routes
Ground level/surface – Maneuvering space
Entry Points – Transfer systems
Connected Elevated Components
Play tables
Soft contained play structures – play structures within a building

The guidelines do not specify what types of components are required, but play components, such as swings, slides and climbers, are required to make at least one component accessible. This would include things like transfer points from a wheelchair to a climbing structure or slide. If a sand or water play area is provided, an equal play area for a child in a wheelchair needs to be included.

Equal Facilitation is the concept of using innovative solutions and new technology to being accessible. Alternative designs and materials can be used in order to satisfy the intent of the component and comply with the guidelines. This is more so in the approach for an accessible play area.

One of the hardest things to decide on in a design for a play area is the ground surface. There are a lot of so called “accessible surface” (stable and firm) providing the ability for mobility devices (wheelchair) to gain access. Some types of loose materials (wood fiber and rubber materials) meet the ASTM Standards and may be safer than a harder surface against fall. Loose materials area is a maintenance problem and requires a lot of maintenance to keep it in compliance. Most designers or jurisdictions will opt for a harder surface with less maintenance.

Recently opened is the Lamorinda “all-access” playground at the Moraga Commons Park in Moraga. It was a community effort to bring this together and one of the best examples of a high-level accessible play area. The area contains a variety of components addressing different types of disability and provides a high-level of play experience, socialization and learning for all. The approach for all accessible play areas should be applied to all accessible buildings. What experience does your building provide for its occupants and users, including ones with disabilities?

Comments from Erick Mikiten, AIA:


Growing up as a wheelchair rider, most play areas I encountered were sandy, and the only way I could get access was if my parents painstakingly dragged my wheelchair through the send, over to the equipment. But even then, the equipment was mostly unusable for someone at a seated level. And as my friends ran around the playground, I could not follow them.

Fast forward 38 years when I had a son of my own, with my same weak bone condition, although he doesn’t need a wheelchair. There were many things that he wouldn’t ever be able to do, but the change in playground design, and the requirements of the ADA gave him more options than I had.

But still, many playgrounds, even if they had equipment from more “enlightened” manufacturers, still didn’t have surfaces that I could wheel over to stay close and help him. And even if I could reach a climbing structure, I probably couldn’t get my wheelchair to all sides of it to spot him as he played.

So if you do get a chance to design a playground (I’ve done a few and they’re great fun to design), think not only about the kids playing, and the surfaces, but think about how parents might interact with kids. Provide access for wheelchairs everywhere (including two or three kids in wheelchairs coming to play together), provide seats for older grandparents to sit and monitor kids, etc. I find that the more creatively we think about our audience and the different things they’ll want to do in playgrounds, the more exciting and creative the playgrounds become for everyone.

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