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Inclusive Practices that Influence Outdoor Play Space Designs

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Outdoor play is essential for all children. Not only is play interrelated to childhood, it is now recognized as a part of the process of becoming an adult (Woolley, 2013).  Recent research conducted identifies many practices within our public sectors and communities that disadvantage children with disabilities because of barriers found within social structures.  Children with disabilities are not always able to access space at public parks or in early learning programs (Zarb, 1995; Woolley, 2013). Woolley (2013) suggested that early learning programs apply three dimensions to their practice as outlined below when thinking about children with disabilities and establishing a community of inclusive practice for outdoor play.


In many early learning programs, barriers to outdoor play space may not be considered until a family with a child with a disability explores the options of attending the program.  Children and adults with disabilities are under-represented users of outdoor play spaces (Dietze, 2013) due to a variety of reasons, such as accessibility of the play spaces because of physical, sight, speech and hearing impairments, and the placement of materials within the space. When the environment presents barriers to children, it reduces their opportunities to engage in the social, play and overall connectedness to outdoor environments, peers and community; thus reducing the development of sustainable and inclusive places of play and feelings of belonging (Dietze, 2013; Woolley, 2013). Yantzi (2010) suggested that in Canada, the physical barriers children experience are due in part to policy omissions and the lack of understanding of special needs and how designs influence options for play.

Think about outdoor play environments that you have observed.  How might the space disadvantage a child that uses mobility devices?  What are the challenges for children that require structured spaces?  How might the space influence play if a child has a visual impairment?  How would a child with hearing impairments manage in the space?  How might the space support children with attention deficit disorders?  How do we ensure that we have considered the placement of fluid materials and stationary equipment within the space to accommodate all children in the space?  Think about your answers to these questions as we examine core terms that are foundational to inclusive environments.

There are four key terms that help early learning teachers position their thinking about how outdoor play space supports all children.  Click on each of the words below to explore the meaning of each term.

Inclusion is “the philosophy that all people have the right to be included with their peers in age-appropriate activities throughout life” (Miller & Schleien, 2006).  Outdoor play spaces that are designed to encourage all children to have the opportunity to play together, rather than being segregated by ability, age or interests contribute to an inclusive practice.

Accessibility refers to one’s ability to approach, enter, and exit the outdoor play space in a functional manner (Prellwitz & Skar, 2007). The Canadian Standards Association (2007) describe an accessible route as “a continuous unobstructed pathway from the perimeter of the use zone to the equipment” (p.3).

Outdoor play usability is identified as children and adults being “able to move around, be in and use the environment on equal terms with others” (Prellwitz & Tamm, 1999, p. 145).

Universal design principles refers to a thinking and action process and framework of principles that design space and products that may be used by all people.

Now examine the video of a local playground.  How do the key points identified in the video transfer to an early learning environment?