Playgrounds are meant for ALL children. Parents and school administrators need occasional reminders that this means including children with special needs too.

“Special needs” can range from physical challenges to emotional, behavioral, or learning difficulties. This commonly includes things like:

  • Autism
  • ADHD
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Down syndrome
  • Emotional issues
  • Epilepsy
  • Reading and learning disabilities
  • Intellectual disabilities

These kids may need additional supervision and accommodations. Still, the benefits of play are just as important for them as they are for any other child.

Many of these benefits come from inclusive play with typically-developing children. Kids get the most out of play when they’re playing with other children with different abilities and skills. This means that special-needs children shouldn’t have their own separate playtime.   

The federal government considers inclusive classrooms to be the gold standard for early childhood education. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Education wrote a joint policy statement in 2015 which states:

“Children with disabilities and their families continue to face significant barriers to accessing inclusive high-quality early childhood programs, and too many preschool children with disabilities are only offered the option of receiving special education services in settings separate from their peers without disabilities.”

“Children don’t think of themselves or their peers as disabled unless we tell them that,” says Shirley Swope, parent advisor at the PEAK Parent Center, a resource center with services for families of children with special needs. “Separating or segregating children tells them they’re different from each other, and that message sticks making it harder and harder for them to integrate as they get older.”

Fostering an all-around, supporting environment means making sure similarities are reinforced. Including typically-developing children and special-needs kids in the same play groups gives them the opportunity to understand and practice inclusion, acceptance, and empathy.

Kids are naturally curious. Typically-developing children will have questions about how mental and physical disabilities work. Help them understand that everyone is different, and that special needs children deserve respect and acceptance.

Non-disabled children are often taught to ignore their peers with special needs. Or worse, they’re taught to treat them differently. So, instead of talking about how children with special needs are different, talk about the ways all children are similar.

A common myth about inclusion is that attention given to children with special needs will take away from typically-developing children. In fact, research indicates that typically-developing children make similar developmental gains in regular and inclusive preschools (Source). Typical peers can share what they know, modeling behaviors for special-needs peers and boosting their own abilities through sharing and demonstration.

When you’re supervising kids of different abilities, keep a watchful eye for bullying or mean-spirited joking. Since children with disabilities are commonly considered “easy targets,” you have to take steps to protect them.

Teachers and parents might consider using “buddy systems” on playgrounds. This is when a typically-developing child is matched to a classmate with special needs during play. The buddy system encourages cooperative play between children in inclusive settings. Select same-gender and same-age peers who enjoy similar activities. Typically developing children may require some training about the best ways to engage their “buddy” in play and how to interpret their behavior and communication style.

Aside from taking steps to integrate special-needs children into the overall group, you’ll need to make accommodations with your playground equipment as well. Common accommodations for special-needs kids might include putting a fence around a playground area, making sure pathways are paved for wheelchairs, and ensuring that equipment contains ramps and guard rails.

Whenever room permits, go above and beyond Americans With Disabilities Act guidelines and make pathways wider than 60 inches. This enables group access for all visitors while accommodating wheeled devices like wheelchairs and strollers.

How do you encourage inclusive play? We’d love to hear your ideas! No Fault Sport Group can provide innovative, slip-resistant rubber safety surfacing that makes it easy for all children to play together. We work with manufacturers to build playgrounds that emphasize safety, inclusion, and value. Please give us a call toll-free at 1-866-NFSPORT and let us know you read this blog!