If one hundred people wrote a guide to creating inclusive play spaces the result would be one hundred different guides. That’s no bad thing, they could be a hundred fantastic and useful guides filled with innovative and creative ideas, but, “inclusive” is not a fixed state. And as it is informed by multiple ever changing factors it never will be. I believe inclusion should be an ongoing collaboration amongst the people within a space, it’s about accepting that no one person will ever find the answer, only, an answer.
So, here, I want to share my thinking process and the ideas I use when I’m working to create play spaces and experiences which I want to be accessible to any child who comes into that space. It’s going to be a little messy and incomplete but, as it’s just one piece of that ongoing inclusion collaboration, messy and incomplete is exactly what it should be.
A “messy and incomplete” pirate ship. Photo shows a collection of tires, wooden pallets, rope and traffic barriers arranged to be a pirate ship. A black flag flies from a bamboo cane sticking out from an upturned giant flower pot. There are leaves from a tree and a brick building with lots of windows in the background.
Inclusion and Access
Firstly, I want to look at two terms, “Inclusion” and “Access”. They are sometimes used interchangeably and confusingly (by myself included) although they mean something different, so I’m going to define how I’m using them in this piece.
When I talk about “Inclusion” I’m referring to the idea that every individual should feel valued for not what they do, say, or look like but who they are. This extends to each individual being able to benefit from, contribute to and simply exist in the social, cultural and physical spaces we inhabit.
When I talk about “Access” I’m referring to the practical consequences of this ideology, the actions we take to try and make this ideology a reality. This includes everything from the way we design and build spaces to the language we use to describe peoples bodies to providing an option of subtitles for an instructional video.
It’s important to try and not confuse these concepts because we need them both. Inclusion needs access to become more than a set of ideas and access needs the foundations of inclusion to be effective.
Universal Play Space
There is a concept used in design and architecture called “Universal Design”. This means that when designing buildings, objects, graphic communication, parks etc. the designer will be working to make the product “as usable as possible by as many people as possible regardless of age, ability or situation.” (http://www.universaldesign.com/what-is-ud/). A key aspect of this approach is that accessibility isn’t an afterthought but is integrated throughout the whole process. The outcome tends to be better design for everyone.
This is a concept I adapt and use working in play, let’s call it; The Universal Play Space. Following the concept of universal design, accessibility should never be an afterthought. Of course, the setting and how well you know the children you’re going to be working with will dictate what you know about the access needs of the children. It is unlikely that you’ll be able to predict every need when planning and preparing for a play session. But, here we have an advantage over the designer.
In design the designer will eventually step away from the product and the users will ultimately dictate what happens and how it is used but in play the playworker remains a part of the process. You, the playworker, have flexibility to adapt the session to children’s needs as they come up. This is perhaps not always obvious or easy as a task but willingness to do so, alongside play skills, experience and collaboration with your team and the children, give you a good chance.
Now, keeping the ideas of Inclusion, Access and the Universal Play Space in mind, let’s move on to the process of planning and preparing for a play session.
Play session planning
For the purposes of this article and in the hope of clarity I’m going to break down my process into three parts; finding, examining and adapting.
Part 1: Finding
Usually I have a lot of ideas and will draw from that idea bank when presented with a need. But I might also be presented with a need, such as planning something for a specific youth group, and then start searching for ideas, often consulting with the group. In the best situation the idea doesn’t come from you but a child. However you come to it though, at some point you will have an idea to work with. Perhaps messy outdoor play involving paint and sponges, or an imaginative play session with a ghostbusters theme. Now that you have this idea, you’ll likely have an image of that idea playing out in your head, it may be a very detailed scenario or something pretty vague. Either way the next step is to take that image and put it to one side.
This putting aside can be the hardest skill to learn. My experience in play is that you’ll find yourself surrounded by incredibly creative people who will come up with fantastic play ideas. Often the more invested we are in an idea the harder it is to put our image of it aside. I think this can be particularly challenging for those who practice art in some way because we’re so used to taking an idea from start to finish, often for personal enjoyment or satisfaction. But, with practice it can be done. And, in the context of the role of the playworker it is what we need to do because our initial image of an idea playing out isn’t what we’re ultimately aiming for.
Paint mixer. A blue barrel with a black plastic tube running through it which stands on two stacks of large black car tires. The structure stands on a blue tarp on top of grass. There is a grass lawn and more tyres pictured in the background. There is a jug filled with yellow paint, a tub of red paint in the foreground. Splashes of paint are visible around the edge of the barrel
Part 2: Examining
Now that you have an idea and have set aside your personal expectations it’s time to examine that idea. The idea isn’t just the image you had of it playing out, it has unlimited possibilities and interpretations. Let’s look at the two examples from above.
For “Messy outdoor play with paint and sponges” we could think about; the exploration of colour and texture, finding new ways of interacting with the outside environment, the joy of mess in itself whether that’s creating a mess or becoming part of one, the sense of mischief that comes from getting away with something, the physical aspect of playing with sponges, throwing them, squishing them, jumping on them.
For “imaginative play with ghostbusters theme” we have; creating and sharing story lines, reimagining a familiar environment, exploring different social roles, designing and making props, directing and negotiating with others, experimenting with emotions like feeling scared or brave, running, jumping, crawling, hiding games, observing others at play.
When you start to explore and discover all these different aspects of one single play idea it becomes much easier to understand how that play idea can work for any child whatever their access needs. It comes down to what we all know but in practice, with the anxiety that comes along with wanting to ‘get things right’, we can forget; there is no one right way to play. Examining ideas like this enables you to have a broader understanding of what a child is actually experiencing in play and therefore what you could do to enable another child to share that experience in their own way.
Photo taken from above shows three red buckets each with a different mix of bark, leaves, sand and water inside. The buckets are sitting on top of a slatted wooden bench and there is grass and dirt visible in the background.
Part 3: Adapting
Having examined your idea you can again conjure up your image of how this is going to play out. How has it changed from the beginning of this process? Some of these changes might affect the way you set up an activity and the resources you gather.
For the messy paint and sponge play you may have initially been thinking about just having large quantities of paint for children to dip sponges in and throw but now you’re also considering how a certain child may not appreciate the tactile sensory side of the play but may still want to explore colour. You might make sure you have multiple colours available and pallets to mix in as well as long handled painting implements and perhaps an option of gloves to wear.
For the ghostbusters activity you may have been thinking about a structured chasing and catching game with defined roles but in examining the idea you might have thought about a child who finds these kinds of games stressful but they may really enjoy creating scripts or movies by themselves. Here you might be able to set up an ‘observation booth’ area in the playground where no ghosts or ghostbusters can go but the child can view what’s happening and perhaps film or give directions to the children in the game.
You will likely make adaptations to the preparation and planning in this way but the majority of adaptations will be made in the moment when the play is happening and you observe a child getting frustrated about not understanding a game and struggling to join in, or perhaps trying to do something completely different with an activity but needing permission or assistance. This is where you step in, use your skills, imagination and explorations to make this a play space for that child. Remember, you are the most flexible part of this process.
Photo shows two ghosts made from bubble wrap with blank silver cd’s as eyes hanging from a wooden structure. There is a brightly coloured parachute in the back ground and the ground is green astro turf.
FIND a play idea, identify your expectations of how the idea might play out and set these aside.
EXAMINE the idea, think of different ways a child might experience the play with different senses, interests, abilities and access needs.
ADAPT to incorporate these different possibilities. Where possible anticipate interests and access needs of the children and prepare for them in your planning. In the moment use your flexibility as a playworker to enable each child to experience the play.
I like to sum up this approach with the statement:
There’s no such thing as just climbing a tree.
Climbing trees seems to be this quintessential childhood play experience for so many people and for a child who can’t physically do this those people might see a huge barrier to play. This is where we need to set aside our personal expectations, and look at what ‘climbing a tree’ actually is. When we do that we discover so many different aspects to an experience that someone can be a part of. In a playground setting that may be finding other ways to experience heights and risk, creating a sensory space using bark, leaves and sticks or using video technology to experience different viewpoints. Remember each child’s play is valuable and valid.
Image of a black pen and pencil drawing of a colourful tree. There is red text at the bottom of the images saying “Just Climbing a tree?”. There is a child in the tree partially obscured by leaves and branches. the child has light brown skin and dark brown long hair with streaks of purple. They are smiling with there arms in hanging to one side with one foot on a branch. The image is covered in captions which say; hear the wind in the branches, be by yourself, see if you can reach the clouds, conspiring with nature, being up high, hide, smelling the leaves, looking down and feeling sick, feel the bark against your skin, explore colours and patterns, break the rules, surprise yourself or others, take a risk, be a monkey, feel scared, getting a different point of view and feel you skin stretch and muscles strain.
Putting this into practice
“Inclusion” often rings hollow to people because it’s seen as a far of ideology rather than a way of doing things. This means Inclusion often becomes tokenistic, because people put things into practice in the name of inclusion whilst not truly believing in it as a concept. I still don’t have a grand solution but as I stated at the beginning of this article I wholeheartedly believe inclusion needs collaboration to work and I hope this piece of writing can be a part of that. I also stated that “Inclusion” is not a fixed thing, in my own practice my focus is often disability and access but need to continually step back and remember all the other essential factors which could include gender identity and expression, sex, race, religion, class, sexual orientation, migrant status and language. A lot of this kind of work is accepting what you don’t know and unlearning what you think you do know. Which, doesn’t come naturally to most of us.
All that said, I want to leave you with some things that I do know.
Inclusion is not just a matter of practicality, it’s a matter of heart. Just making sure a kid in a wheelchair can get into the playground doesn’t mean they’ll feel like they belong there. Just because you don’t stop a kid from jumping and flapping doesn’t mean they’ll feel free. Using alternative communication in the play space won’t necessarily make a kid feel like their ideas and feelings matter.
All these things are important and essential but they won’t do alone.
Inclusion is about the way we think about each other and how this translates to our relationships and the spaces we create and inhabit together. So when you’re thinking about how to make your practice inclusive, before anything else, you need to examine that thought. Why do I want to do this? What do I think inclusion means? What are my experiences of inclusion and exclusion? Each of us has been conditioned to think about the world in a certain way. In my experience of disability it was a narrative that centred loss, sadness and a life somehow less valuable or worth living. A narrative that I wholeheartedly and absolutely dismiss but need to be continually aware of to understand and recognise how it may impact on my thinking and behaviour.
Doing this kind of thinking can be difficult but is a necessary part of inclusion that stops it being a far off ideology and makes it a tool we can use to each make our practice and life so much better. And then? It’s time to collaborate and create.
I’ll see you on the playground!