“You Can’t Play” Is Not Acceptable – Playgrounds for All Children


During a visit to Philadelphia, the irony of a playground surrounded by a gate was not lost on me.

During a visit to Philadelphia, the irony of a playground surrounded by a gate was not lost on me.

Opening Note:
Janusz Korczak championed the inclusion of all children; indeed, Dom Sierot accommodated many children nobody else wanted to nurture. Another theme in this article are the various UN declarations on human rights, all of which embody Dr. Korczak’s philosophies on the child’s right to dignity and the moral obligation to act “in the best interest of the child.”

Tears rolling down her cheek, a little girl sobbed as she watched other children playing happily on the swings and monkey bars. The reason for her tears? The soft surface and narrow structures posed impassable obstacles for the wheelchair she used to get around. Although the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 required new playgrounds, like all other places of “public accommodation,” be accessible to everyone, many people have been unaware of the law’s requirements. And as important as this legislation is, it is not the federal government that has been the greatest impetus for ensuring that all children can benefit from healthy, constructive outdoor play but, rather, parent advocates. Moved by the plight of these children, whether they are their own or someone else’s, many parents were spurred to action. Other parents, who lost a child to a terminal condition, often after a courageous battle for survival, with equal determination, dedicated themselves to building a playground for other children with a disability, to honor their lost loved one, enabling other children to enjoy what their child did not have a chance to experience.


Boundless Playgrounds

Two pioneers in the US are Boundless Playgrounds and Shane’s Inspiration. One day, Amy Barzach, mother of two boys, noticed a little girl in a wheelchair. Unable to join her peers on the playground, she was sobbing. The following year, tragedy struck one of her children, rendering with a severe disability, from which he later died. The image of the little girl in the wheelchair still fresh in her mind, she was inspired to honor the memory of her son and, in 1997, created Boundless Playgrounds to raise funds and work with existing suppliers of playground equipment to create spaces where all children could play. Boundless Playgrounds has created stringent standards of design, to which suppliers and builders must comply to become a certified Boundless Playground and earn the trademark. The organization works with communities and individual advocates to ensure each Boundless Playground will provide children of all abilities many years of safe and fun enjoyment. More than 200 Boundless Playgrounds in the U.S. and Canada offer some 100,000 children social, recreational, and educational opportunities for play.


Shane’s Inspiration

Another early effort is Shane’s Inspiration. Born in 1997, Shane Alexander, lived only a few weeks, succumbing to Spinal Muscular Atrophy. Shane’s parents, Catherine Curry-Williams and Scott Williams knew that, had he lived, he would have been confined to a wheelchair. Shane, would have been denied a fundamental rights of childhood, the right to play, enjoyi8ng time with friends on the playground. Their tragic loss became the vision we now know as Shane’s Inspiration; in 1998 thousands of children of all abilities in Los Angeles were able to play together on a huge, bright two-acre playground. According to the Web site, “this playground gives children with disabilities and children without the opportunity to play with and learn from each other, thus increasing awareness and acceptance.”  Shane’s Inspiration has led to other community leaders and advocates throughout California and some far-away places to develop more than 40 more such Universally Accessible Playground projects. Furthermore, Hadley’s Park opened in 1999, in Potomac, Maryland. As with the other playgrounds, this facility inspired other efforts to provide inclusive play areas for local children, including parents who wanted to honor a deceased child.

Inclusive playgrounds were featured on an NPR piece, “For Kids with Special Needs, More Places to Play”; the web page features an overview, with pictures and a podcast.


Going Beyond ADA

The Americans with Disabilities Act was an important first step in ensuring that children with disabilities could gain access to a playground. However, many ADA-compliant playgrounds do not guarantee that all children with disabilities are able to be accommodated; or they may be able to use some parts of the playground but not all. The Boundless Playgrounds and those playgrounds built under Shane’s inspiration all go further in accommodating every child. Playgrounds on which children of all abilities can play fall under the following categories:

  • Accessible playgrounds. An accessible playground poses no barriers for any child.
  • Inclusive playgrounds. An inclusive playground is designed to allow children of all abilities to play side-by-side; each element is able to accommodate all abilities simultaneously.
  • Universal designed playgrounds. Also referred to as “universally accessible playgrounds,” these playgrounds are designed to be equally useful to everyone, not just persons with disabilities.  Universal design is addressed in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

It should be noted that accessibility has been refined to include features for children whose disability is intellectual or cognitive rather than one of mobility; examples include on which children with various types of autism or sensory-processing disorders will feel at home. An example of one of these sensory facilities is the Star Center Playground. Furthermore, a handy online resource lists 30 exemplary playgrounds. Two more excellent resources are the online comprehensive directory compiled by Accessible Playgrounds and a downloadable app that is part of the NPR article.


Human Rights Worldwide

The ability of persons with disabilities to partake in and enjoy activities like everyone else without barriers, central to ADA, is embodied in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. This important document seeks to commit UN member states “to promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disabilities, and to promote respect for their inherent dignity.”

Earlier UN documents have recognized the human rights among children with disabilities. According to the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), Article 27, “Everyone has the right to participate in the cultural life of the community….”

UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child (1959) the following sections relate to this topic:

  • Section 2. “The child shall enjoy special protection, and shall be given opportunities and facilities, by law and by other means, to enable him to develop physically, mentally, morally, spiritually and socially in a healthy and normal manner and in conditions of freedom and dignity. In the enactment of laws for this purpose, the best interests of the child shall be the paramount consideration.
  • Section 5. “The child who is physically, mentally or socially handicapped shall be given the special treatment, education and care required by his particular condition.”
  • Section 10. “The child shall be protected from practices which may foster racial, religious and any other form of discrimination.”

According to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1990), the following sections relate to this topic:

  • Article 23. “…a mentally or physically disabled child should enjoy a full and decent life, in conditions which ensure dignity, promote self-reliance and facilitate the child’s active participation in the community.”
  • Article 31. “…the right of the child to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts.”

Johan Huizinga, who in Homo Ludens literally wrote the book on play, said “Play is a uniquely adaptive act, not subordinate to some other adaptive act, but with a special function of its own in human experience.”




ADA Resources

In the US, the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990) “prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability by public accommodations and requires places of public accommodation and commercial facilities to be designed, constructed, and altered in compliance with the accessibility standards established by this part.”

For detailed information on the requirements for new playgrounds under ADA, these are some good sources: