Universal design principles were first introduced in the architecture sector in an effort to address the economic, functional, and accessibility barriers to physical spaces for all people, with or without disabilities.
Universal design principles in early learning environments refers to a thinking and action process and framework of principles that early learning teachers may use to design outdoor space that support inclusion of all children and their families. The Centre for Universal Design defines universal design as follows:
Universal design is the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible without the need for adaptation or specialized design. The intent of universal design is to simplify life for everyone by making products, communications, and the built environment more usable by as many people as possible at little or no extra cost. Universal design benefits people of all ages and abilities. (Center for Universal Design, 2008)
Early learning teachers use universal design principles to guide them when choosing materials and placing materials and equipment, keeping in mind the variety of abilities and needs of children and adults. Scott, McGuire, and Foley, (2003) identified that these principles should be considered for all children and adults, rather than for children with disabilities. They used an example of a centre that was required to install a ramp to accommodate a child in a wheelchair. They noted after the installation that families took advantage of the ramp for children in strollers. Think of the power of the ramp and then think of how it changes the physical activity and imaginary play options for children. The ramp became a place to play games such as “Three Billy Goats Gruff” and for families and children to have differing types of physical experiences entering and exiting the building.
The seven principles of universal design have great merit in designing outdoor play space design. Dietze & Kashin (2016) have taken the universal principles and identified in the chart below how each principle may influence early learning outdoor play spaces.
|Universal Design Principle||Outdoor play application|
|Equitable use – The space provides all children with identical or equivalent use whenever possible.||The accessibility of the outdoor play space allows all children to access it. Children are not segregated because of the materials, equipment, or placement of the items in the outdoor play space. The environment has interesting features that are appealing to the varying interests of the children. The space is designed to engage all children.|
|Flexibility in use – The space is designed to accommodate a wide range of individual preferences, interests, and abilities.||The outdoor play space is designed to allow for change in its usage, depending on children’s interests and types of play episodes. The space is also designed to accommodate the differing energy levels, sensory-motor and related abilities that will allow for children to exercise outdoor play at their pace without interfering with other children’s play.|
|Simple and intuitive –The design and flow of space is easy to understand.||The outdoor play space has a flow to it that is simple and understandable to children through visual, auditory or sensory observations and experiences. As changes occur to the outdoor space, children and adults engage in communication about the changes and how the changes inform their play.|
|Perceptible information – The design communicates necessary information to the user through different modes such as pictorial, verbal, tactile, regardless of sensory abilities.||The outdoor play design clearly communicates the different elements of the space. The space can be altered to meet the needs and interests of children and their play.|
|Tolerance of error – The design minimizes hazards and the adverse consequences of accidental or unintended actions.||The outdoor play spaces are accessible to all and are arranged in ways that encourage children to engage with their peers. No child feels isolated because of physical barriers. Observation of the space is continuous to eliminate hazards and potential unsafe conditions.|
|Low physical effort – The design can be used efficiently and comfortably and with a minimum of fatigue.||The outdoor play environment provides children and adults with ease in accessing resources and space. The aesthetics of the space provide comfort to the users. Access to the space and maneuvering the space occurs with a minimum of effort.|
|Size and shape for approach and use – Appropriate size and space is provided for approach, reach, manipulation, and use regardless of user’s body size, posture, or mobility.||The outdoor play space and organization of the materials, equipment and resources support all children having access to what they require to support their play. The space is organized to provide a clear line of sight of children in their play, no matter what the children’s body position is. The space pathways and equipment accommodate children and adults that use assistive devices or have personal assistance.|
Early learning teachers that embrace universal design principles examine each component of the outdoor space to ensure that all children have equitable access to the play areas. This may mean some adjustments to the spaces, which in essence offer rich play opportunities that may not have been previously considered. For example, there may be ramps placed in strategic areas of the outdoor play spaces to accommodate individuals with mobility apparatus. They become places for children to learn about many scientific principles such as speed, angles, or velocity. Using the core principles of universal design, Dietze & Kashin (2016), have identified three essential qualities of universal design for outdoor play environments.
|Essential Quality of Universal Design||Implications for Outdoor Play Spaces in Early Learning Environments|
|Outdoor play curriculum is visible and presented in multiple means of representation to support all children’s abilities and interests.||The outdoor experiences of children are displayed in a variety of ways, such as through pedagogical documentation and displays at outdoor entry and exit points and throughout the outdoor play space.|
|Outdoor play curriculum provides children with multiple means of expression.||The environment, materials and people within the outdoor environment engage in outdoor play experiences that lead to exploration and discovery in diverse ways. A variety of potential experiences to engage with are present daily and offer challenge that encourages children to experience ideas taking a simple to more complex approach to achieve new knowledge and skills.|
|Outdoor play curriculum provides multiple means of engagement.||The outdoor play space is designed to support all children in having a comfort in the space, options for connecting with others, and access to time, resources, peers and adults that trigger their curiosity and options for play and learning.|
The following considerations serve to further examine the outdoor space and place for the benefit of all children.
The outdoor physical space ensures that all children have access and equitable opportunities to engage in the variety of outdoor play experiences offered within the space and place. The materials, resources, structures and permanent and non-permanent equipment are available to children without requiring adult intervention.
The outdoor space promotes safety and healthy risk taking by ensuring that all children may use the space with minimal hazards to them. The outdoor space accommodates all children’s desire to play regardless of health or disability.
The outdoor play space is a place that supports the development of healthy social-emotional development by offering children equitable access to the space, experiences, and peers.
The outdoor play space encourages exploration, discovery and learning by all children by having equitable access to the environment and opportunities for play within the environment. There are multiple ways in which children may express their ideas and engage in outdoor play.
Early learning teachers may find it helpful to include the following types of questions in their reflective practice as they think about the design and characteristics of their environments.
- What types of considerations need to be made to ensure that the space is designed and equipment placed to accommodate children?
- What types of motor and learning abilities need to be considered to ensure inclusive practice is evident?
- What types of materials, permanent and non-permanent equipment, and resources are needed to benefit the range of motor abilities and interests?
- What types of designs for the physical space should be evident so that all children may maneuver the space safely?
- What types of design features need to be practiced to ensure children do not face barriers that might segregate them from others?
- What types of information about space design and activities should be shared with families to assist them in understanding about inclusive practice?
- How are all children supported and engaged in making the outdoor play space inclusive?
Think about the questions above and then use the box below to comment on ways to make outdoor play environments accessible to all children and families. What are the challenges?