PlaySpecial Needs

Boundless Playgrounds

Adventure playgrounds are awesome—kids enjoy unstructured play, take risks, build stuff using random supplies, and only occasionally get hurt. Begun as junk playgrounds in the mid 20th century, these play areas have new popularity. According to Fair Play for All Children, “children engage in a far greater variety of activities on adventure playgrounds and that this type of playground is much more popular with children than are either traditional or contemporary designs”

Adventure Playground (pic Charlie Vinz, Flickr)
Adventure Playground in use (pic Charlie Vinz, Flickr)

Old school playgrounds from our childhood are also awesome—kids can climb forever high on jungle gyms, ride merry-go-rounds at whip-fast speeds, clamber up “spider” webs, and slide down steep metal slides that burn bright on hot sunny days. . .all above hard asphalt surfaces. Sure, they risk the occasional broken bone, but it turns out risk is good for kids, and fewer rules and limits can counterintuitively mean fewer injuries.

Kids playgrounds these days suck. With monkey bars too low to the ground for kids to really hang, slides set at boring angles and made of plastic, soft mulch, and equipment lowered to toddler heights, playgrounds are just not fun anymore.

Or at least that’s the theory behind the resurgence of adventure playgrounds that is . And pictures of those playgrounds are pretty sweet. I know I’d play there. My kids would too. . .

If they could.

But they can’t. And neither can most of their friends.

Nowhere on that 10 foot jungle gym is there room for the child with cerebral palsy who uses a wheelchair or walker. Nowhere in that adventure playground are structures that are safe or friendly to children with visual impairments, or sensory processing disorders. The mulch, sand or broken asphalt halt many kids with disabilities before they even make it to the equipment.

Facing the challenges of a disability is separating enough, kids don’t need yet another door slammed in their face, and that’s what happens when playground designers focus only on mainstream kids.

There are those who would say it’s unfair. That disabled kids getting access to playground equipment means making all equipment boring, safe, and sterile.

boundless playground slide is wheelchair friendly, a modern version of a sit-and-spin, and an adaptive "ferry" in the background
wheelchair friendly slide in front of a modern version of a sit-and-spin, and an adaptive “ferry” (3 non-adaptive slides not pictured) (pic: deek)

But the logic that says you can either have 100% safe-seeming playgrounds, with boring equipment (that can still hurt you but makes people feel all warm and fuzzy and safe) or you can have fun challenging “adventure” ones sets up a false dichotomy. Those aren’t the only two options.

There’s at least one more: inclusive or boundless playgrounds. If you’ve never taken your child to one, you should give them a try. We found ours when someone kindly suggested we visit the one near us, but there are maps  that show locations throughout the U.S.

When planned right, boundless playgrounds provide challenge for the physically able and for people with disabilities. Many look like the current trend of “safe” boring playgrounds at first, but with a key difference: they are designed to be fun and interesting to all children, and they tend to have structures that challenge even able bodied older children.

They are additive. Problem solving, free play, and mental stimulation as well as physical challenge are brought back to the playground, but done so in a way that children with handicaps can play alongside their non-disabled peers seamlessly.

The boundless playgrounds in our community have plenty of difficult climbs (like a pretty wonderful rope wall and *gasp* monkey bars placed high enough for kids to reach without touching the ground), but they’re also designed for kids with physical disabilities (including the blind and deaf), and for kids with cognitive impairments or who are on the autism spectrum.

A deck wide enough for wheelchairs runs beside stairs, rope climbs, a rock wall and slides
A deck wide enough for wheelchairs runs alongside structures challenging for all children (pic: deek)

Some changes are subtle, the kind only a kid with a disability is going to pay attention to: the surface at our boundless playground is a soft rubber that allows our friend’s wheelchair to slip along. But, it also differs slightly in color and density between the open places and the areas near equipment, which is a godsend for children with visual impairments and for my son, whose sensory processing disorder (SPD) and gross motor delays mean he’s crawling much of the time and pays close attention to those differences beneath his fingers.

Other differences are obvious: the playground is divided into a 0-4+ year olds section, and a 5+ section, with age and developmentally appropriate structures in each. Both sections, for example have hanging and playing structures that are high enough kids have to jump a bit to reach them, and both areas have swing sets. But each also has adaptive swings, and alternative means of accessing high places that allow children with limited mobility to play up high too.

In the common area is an undulating wall with wonderful sound, shape and texture surfaces—new walkers and children with visual impairments seem to love traveling the length of it and exploring the puzzles it provides.

A large platform mimics a ferry crossing, and it is HARD to move. A huge rock-and-sway structure seems to always attract older kids. The play area with slides has steps, climbing poles, and climbing walls, but is also truly wheelchair accessible, with a rolling bar slide that is also attractive to children with SPD who find the feel of the rolling bars fun as they tumble down.

The park also includes a sand pit with mini cranes that can be maneuvered by children with fine motor disabilities, and random flat surfaces where kids can pile sand or do whatever. The permanent tools are set up near the edge, where children in wheelchairs can access them, as can children who cannot handle the texture of dry sand on their skin (like my son, which makes beach visits an adventure). Eventually, maybe he’ll dig in, but getting to try and to have fun while feeling secure lets him get to that place gradually on his own terms. In an old school playground design, he would simply never try.

this structure for ages 2-5 is physically challenging for all abilities (pic: Deek)
this structure for ages 0-4+ is physically challenging for all abilities, high bars allow older children to dangle freely (pic: Deek)

In the younger child area, small freestanding structures allow the very earliest crawler to access manipulatives, and eventually pull him or herself up to a stand. Other free standing structures allow early walkers and climbers to clamber onto a platform and up onto higher platforms, while spinning disks or other fine motor skills. The center piece of the small kid area consists of two large structures: a traditional slide set with 2 slides and enclosed platforms, and a wonderfully huge slide and rope/clambor area that includes two rope webs, monkey bars set high enough that 5 year olds have to jump to catch hold, a tightrope walk a foot above the ground, and play areas near the ground, among other things.

Many parents of developmentally normal toddlers and babies come to this playground because it is a safer and more young-child friendly than the neighborhood playgrounds with their mulch surfaces that deter crawlers.

The level of thought that went into our boundless playground continues to floor me. My sons and out friends’ children have disorders that require them to take frequent breaks from the chaos and noise of play. The playground was also planned around that, with a picnic area to the side, as well as a field a bit further away. Nearby, the boulders were left to erupt from the ground, providing free-climbing fun for those who can.

It has been decades since our culture was comfortable isolating children with disabilities, and I would hate for a movement towards fun playgrounds to bring that back. A barrier communities face in boundless playground construction is the increased cost, but stories abound of parents and communities finding the funds.

Bland boring playgrounds that emphasize the appearance of safety over child development and fun are not the answer to inclusive play, nor are playgrounds that ostracize children with disabilities. Well-planned boundless playgrounds can keep all kids interested, challenged, and playing. If you have a boundless playground near you, please check and see if it’s on this directory. If not, please add it.


Deek lives with her husband, twin sons and two cats in the northwest. She teaches and writes about parenting in the NICU, her experiences as a parent of micro-preemies and skeptical parenting.

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