Thinking About Playgrounds As Inclusive Classrooms

One snapshot of a We Rock the Spectrum playground (Photo: Talia Herman/Re:form)

Dina Kimmel is the mother of an autistic son who has had one too many bad experiences being kicked out of a playground because of her son’s behavioral issues. After consulting with occupational therapists and other autism professionals to test what sorts of playground equipment was most popular with all children, they were able to design indoor playgrounds that she named We Rock the Spectrum , where children of all developmental levels could be included despite their developmental struggles. Started in 2009, We Rock the Spectrum is now opening their nineteenth location. Some of the main attractions of her playground designs include: trampolines, swings, crash pads, bouncy balls, wooden ladders with oval-shaped rungs, dumbbells, and more. These playgrounds serve as another form of therapy that allows for self-calming activities and movement. Oftentimes we find that students with disabilities are isolates from their typically developing peers, but these inclusive playgrounds have something for everyone and are designed to encourage the children to play with each other. Kimmel says, “as many hours as I’ve logged on playgrounds, I rarely see children of different abilities. If the design isn’t inclusive, if families don’t feel welcome, they won’t come.”

When Dina Kimmel designs a playground she thinks of environments that spark her imagination, including features like fences, for children prone to wondering, poured rubber surfaces and ramps, which are easier to navigate and less messy than sand. John McConkey, a market insights manager at Landscape Structures explains, “The ADA [American Disabilities Act] only goes part way. It doesn’t address functionality, how the user can engage with the activity, if they find it stimulating and fun and if it facilitates social interaction. If you forgo designing for inclusion, you could end up with ‘ramps to nowhere,’ which provide access but little fun.”

Olenka Villareal, founder of Magical Bridge , a $4 million inclusive playground that is scheduled to open in December, argues, “The playground is the first real classroom kids have…prejudices from when children aren’t exposed to different kinds of kids. And if you’re a kid that can’t get onto the equipment, who can’t get across the sand, it sends the message that someone didn’t think about you when designing the park.”

At Shema Kolainu, we have our own multisensory room designed specifically for the children on the spectrum that we serve, however, it would be a huge benefit to the autism community to see more inclusive playgrounds emerge in New York City over the next few years as the need for them is also increasing.

To find out if there are any inclusive playgrounds near you, click HERE