Playground Tips for Children with Disabilities

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

Disabilities 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.

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Many of these benefits come from inclusive play with other children. Kids get the most out of play when they’re playing with other children with different abilities and skills. This means that children with disabilities 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 children with and without disabilities in the same play groups gives them the opportunity to understand and practice inclusion, acceptance, and empathy.

Kids are naturally curious. Children will have questions about how mental and physical disabilities work. Help them understand that everyone is different, and that children with disabilities deserve respect and acceptance.

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

A common myth about inclusion is that attention given to children with disabilities will take away from other children. In fact, research indicates that children without disabilities make similar developmental gains in regular and inclusive preschools (Source). Peers can share what they know, modeling behaviors for peers with disabilities 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 child is matched to a classmate with disabilities during play. The buddy system encourages cooperative play between children in inclusive settings. Select peers who enjoy similar activities. 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 children with disabilities into the overall group, you’ll need to make accommodations with your playground equipment as well. Common accommodations for kids with disabilities might include putting a fence around a playground area, making sure pathways are wheelchair accessible, and including playground equipment that allows kids of all abilities to play together.

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.

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How do you encourage inclusive play? We’d love to hear your ideas! No Fault Surfaces can provide innovative 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. Contact us to discuss how No Fault safety surfacing can make your playground more inclusive.

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