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Creating inclusive play spaces: a place to start

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

To Summarise:

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.

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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!

Let me process my sensory processing

content warning: this post contains discussion of mental health and has self harm mentions

I’m a sensitive guy

When I say I’m Sensitive, I really mean it, in its most literal sense. Certain noises make me flinch and squirm, certain lights make me nauseous, and food is a textural minefield. Wagon wheels (a biscuit with chocolate and marshmallow- a terrible terrible combination) must have been on offer one week in primary school because they showed up in my lunch box out of the blue. I cried every lunchtime that week at just the idea of having to eat them. Ten years later I held back tears in a Subway eating a sandwich with two different crumbly textures that just didn’t work together. It’s kind of embarrassing being a teenager crying at a sandwich in front of your new uni pals. Especially when you can’t explain why and are not even sure if an honest explanation would even improve things. Little old ladies shaking tins and handing out charity stickers were a childhood enemy; to this day I still can’t deal with stickers, sticky labels and certain types of plasters (I’ve made a lot of progress with this one). Light touch can set off a jarring metallic sharpness that runs through my whole body, it can trigger a sudden intense anger and distress; a total mood killer. There is an ingredient in certain cosmetics and toiletries that I’ve narrowed down to being in ‘berry scented’ things, it makes me feel overwhelmingly nauseous and disgusted. I once dated someone who had a raspberry lip balm, it took me a while to figure out what was going on, but whatever the underlying reason, it turns out no one wants to hear “I really like you but sometimes kissing you makes me want to vomit”.

I could go on (and kind of want to because this is pretty therapeutic) but what I’m trying to get across here is that while sensory processing issues can be unpredictable, wide-ranging, bizarre and effect every area of a person’s life they can, perhaps most importantly, be intensely emotional. I’ve noticed that when we talk about things like sensory overload or challenging behaviours being a response to sensory stimulation we have a tendency to emphasise the physical side of things. Being hypersensitive to noise is often explained as being physically painful, and I’m not saying this is untrue, but for me it’s the emotional impact of noise that causes the most pain*.

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Sensory processing and mental health

Let me give you some context; I’ve experienced problems with my mental health for at least the last ten years (before that I don’t really have much emotional memory other than particularly strong points of distress or joy) I’m a chronic depressive, I have ongoing anxiety and occasional panic attacks, I have experienced intrusive and obsessive thoughts, this effects my sleep and tiredness levels, digestion and eating. This is just a part of my life and its okay, it really is, whilst these things are inseparable from my day to day life they are also not fixed, they change and I change. But as I’ve gotten older I’ve slowly realised how intrinsic my sensory experiences are too my mental health. And it frustrates me that had I understood and the people around me acknowledged that sensory issues have an emotional impact I may have had to struggle a whole lot less.

For example when I have been in noisy environment, particularly one with many layers of noise such as a pub or busy supermarket, and move out of that into a quiet one I will immediately feel relief but then following that will often fall very quickly into a depressive and sometimes even suicidal state. In the past this has manifested in compulsive self-harm and related behaviours. It’s taken me a long time to recognise this as a pattern but now I can try to manage this in a healthier way. I can’t always prevent or avoid this state but I can understand it and take steps to look after myself. This is when I haven’t even got to the level of what I’d describe as sensory overload. When I hit that level I just stop working. My thoughts can’t organise themselves, I can’t speak or communicate properly, it can feel like I’m internally screaming, I feel helpless and all I can do if just desperately try to will myself out of existence. The comedowns from this are usually slower to happen but can last a lot longer. It’s very rare that I hit this level but I’m constantly aware that I can and the constant low-level stress of existing in an unpredictable world like this can be just as damaging as those moments when it peaks.

Lack of Control

So there’s that immediate emotional impact but there’s a more subtle long term force at work; the emotional impact of an ongoing lack of control. It begins with being a kid and feeling constantly on the verge of distress, you don’t have the communication skills to explain what’s going on or even the ability to understand it. You probably just have very strong ideas about what is okay and what you desperately need to avoid. You create games and rules to try and control these things the best you can but they never work all the time. Not only can you not control the environment around you but you also can’t control your own reaction to it. You keep trying and as you get older you develop new coping mechanisms, these have different shelf lives, some things might work for days, some for months, years. You have different options, you can become the centre of the universe as you know it, from this point you can make the most noise and draw the most attention and gain control over your environment that way. Or you can withdraw and create a smaller world that just has you in it. Either way you still can’t find sensory balance that other people just don’t seem to need to think about it. It’s a mystical superpower because no matter how hard you try you feel under attack from the world and you keep crashing. You might find it difficult to connect with others, go to new places, and do new things because you’re constantly working to keep your mind and body safe. No experience stands alone, they all happen in the context of both your memories and current emotional state. The impact this has had on me is huge and I meet so many children who seem to be experiencing something similar.

Why am I telling you all this

We all work every day to find balance between the information our senses are constantly receiving and the energy and time we put into understanding and reacting to it. For some people they never have to think about this, it more subconscious behind the scenes kind of stuff, for some it may occupy every moment and use every resource they have. I see this in children I work with who have to limit and control their every experience in order to function or children who find their way through the world using repetition and constant sensory stimulation to create predictability and safety. My experiences is neither of these but it’s also not fixed and will change.

I’ve focussed on hypersensitivity to noise in this article because it is very common amongst people with sensory issues and is perhaps the most widely acknowledged cause of sensory distress. This may be because its impact can be particularly obvious and the problematic stimulus is often easy to identify for people outside of the experience. Effective interventions can be pretty easy to achieve by either removing the noise or changing the individual’s experience of the noise through the use of headphones, white noise, ear plugs/defenders etc. However unlike something like sensitivity to different food tastes or textures where the individual can control what they eat, you can never have full control over what you hear. And this becomes more problematic the more someone goes new places, experiences new things.

I strongly believe the emotional impact of sensory issues needs to be acknowledged and explored; especially by those in caring roles such as mine. Sensory processing issues are super common in people who are autistic, have ADHD, learning disabilities and/or fit under the umbrella of neurodiversity but they are hard to understand. Because of this we often look at them in a simplified way, for example, thinking if you simply get rid of a noise that was distressing someone then that experience is over for the individual. Now there is ‘no reason’ for them to behave in a way you find challenging. We need acknowledge the broader impact of these experiences if we want to support people kindly and effectively.

Let’s let people be complicated and be willing to not always understand but to keep trying. And if I ever appear physically repulsed when you offer me food, please try not to take it too personally.

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* I want to note a couple of issues at play here. Firstly the idea of pain being either physical or emotional is false. Pain is complex and I don’t believe it is ever solely physical or solely emotional and to force this separation is to oversimplify and ignore parts of an individual’s experience. Secondly with this in mind, we broadly consider physical pain to be more legitimate or important than emotional pain. Again I don’t believe in this idea and will be writing more on this issue in the future.

Playful Communication: the joys of the ‘non-functioning’

“Communication is about our ability to share our lives with other people”            

Working in play, particularly in disability and additional needs settings, has blown open my understanding of what communication is. The quote above from therapist and author Phoebe Caldwell is, to me, is the best explanation of where I’ve landed. Most definitions of communication I see or hear focus on the imparting and receiving of information, they usually also mention speech and writing as how this can be done. I’m not suggesting these definitions are invalid or wrong, just that I feel they largely miss the point; sharing. Our communication is the reason we are able to exist alongside each other and the effectiveness of our communication is what determines how harmoniously we are able to do this. It’s not just the imparting and receiving of information that makes up communication, it’s that bit in the middle, the bit where you are existing in the same moment as another person and choosing to explore that together. That’s where the truth and joy of communication lies, not in the mechanics, in the sharing.

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Painting by Keith Haring

Speech is so often prioritised and seen as the ultimate way of communicating, and, that’s because for many, it is. Speech seems to come fairly naturally to most and from what I understand feels natural too, easy and satisfying. But not for everyone and if you take anything from this post I hope it’s this; speech is not the only way, the best way or the most ‘human’ way to communicate. When I’m able to communicate with someone without speaking I feel at my most content, connected and understood. People often mistake quietness or lack of conversation as a lack of things to express or desire to communicate. That’s not true, it’s perhaps just that talking, to them, is the most natural way to communicate and connect with people and therefore they assume, to everyone. I can speak, often very well, but talking often feels like a means to an end rather than an end itself, it’s for that ‘functional’ bit of communicating rather than that expressive, joyful sharing bit. Writing is different for me, when I’m writing in a way that feels natural it feels much closer to drawing than speaking.

De-prioritising speech is especially important in my line of work. A lot of the kids I work with don’t speak, can’t speak or perhaps speech just isn’t a form of communication that comes natural to them. That’s not to say speech isn’t important or useful, just that it is a way of communication that has no more or less value than any other kind; the way we jump or rock, the noises we make, images we create, the faces we pull, the way we move through and change our environment, the pauses we take to breathe and be, sharing touch and laughter and any other way you can think of that allows us to express ourselves. When kids face challenges in their ability to communicate we put a lot of emphasis on teaching and enabling them to communicate functionally, in doing this we also need to remember that a person’s inability to communicate is equally our inability to understand them. Whilst we create tools and put time into giving a child a way to ask for the toilet or a snack we also need to take the time to notice and respond to all those kinds of communications a person uses as they try to share their world. Ignoring these or dismissing these as less important than that ‘functional’ communication can cause us to isolate people in our attempt to understand them.

One of the many reasons I love working in play is that the play space is an environment where different forms of communication are already valued and recognised. It’s allows for, encourages and often even priorities those non-functional or non-verbal communications. In this way it creates a beauty and authenticity I think we could all benefit from if we took the time to explore it.


Phoebe Caldwell is an author and practitioner who works with people considered to have severe communication difficulties. She uses the technique ‘intensive interaction’ and has written extensively on the subject. Here’s her website where you can find more information including information in ‘easy-read’ formats; http://www.phoebecaldwell.co.uk/