Disability and Inclusion: Making Outdoor Play Accessible
The outdoors is a special playing and learning environment for all children: a place of unrestricted choice of movement and immersive sensory experience where aesthetic qualities are more vivid in a natural world of infinite space. And, when considering disability and inclusion, childcare professionals report that, for those children with individual needs and complex disabilities, contact with the outdoors is almost guaranteed to produce stronger responses than the levels normally exhibited during indoor play.
As Bilton observes, a well-designed outdoor landscape offers the perfect place to accommodate inclusive play:
‘… there is lots of space, mess and noise are not a problem and there are lots of loose parts which children can use at their own level of ability … Outside one can practise over and over and over again. In play everyone can be included and it is simply easier to follow the gist of what is going on.’ (Bilton, 2010)
If you’re considering re-designing your outdoor space, be sure to make an appointment with one of our expert advisors.
A child’s right to inclusive play
This outdoor model of provision clearly seeks to fulfil the requirements of article 23 of the United Nations Committee’s Rights of the Child (UNCRC) document which sets out the right of all disabled children to ‘enjoy a full and decent life’. However, as Casey (2011) has shown and Figure 8.1 illustrates, the UNCRC notion of inclusive play can itself be subject to a range of nuanced interpretations both in legislative documents and guidance issued by different organisations, and in different childcare settings. Sometimes opportunities for access and participation are prioritised, whilst elsewhere the focus may shift to removing exclusive barriers or providing the fullest possible inclusive play experience.
Figure 8.1 Interpretations of the right to be included (Inspired by Casey, 2011)
Play and inclusion: a potential paradox
One result of this variety of emphasis, clearly highlighted in the Barnardo’s ‘Lets play together’ report (Barnardo’s, 2005), is that even the best inclusive play provision ‘where diversity is respected and valued’ and which enables ‘all children of all abilities, ethnic backgrounds, ages and other differences, to play together’ will have ‘barriers which must be overcome’. As the report’s authors point out and summarise in graphic form (see Figure 8.2), there can be many practical reasons why ‘inclusive play is not merely about inclusion’ – their research evidence encompassed some settings which fell short of this ideal and ‘provided high-quality play, but were not inclusive (in terms of children playing together)’, while others were ‘inclusive, but did not necessarily enable children to play’.
Nevertheless, according to the Barnardo’s data, 60% of their surveyed project settings (a total of 39 locations) were successful in increasing the numbers of disabled and non-disabled children playing together. But where such efforts failed to achieve this outcome the primary reasons were practical/administrative issues related to transport and staffing (see Figure 8.3).
Figure 8.3 Reported difficulties restricting the provision of inclusive play (Barnardo’s, 2005)
Disability and Inclusion: Disabling barriers
Whilst outdoor play is beneficial for all children, as Ploughman (2008) has established, any lack of such experience for children with impairments carries a double disadvantage in that they are thus deprived of healthy exercise and activity which is known to boost cognitive functioning. In addition, a further array of disabling barriers identified in the ‘Free play in early childhood’ literature review (National Children’s Bureau, 2007), may further impede these children’s participation in enjoyable play and lead to deprivation via ‘an aggregation of social, emotional and psychological challenges’:
Figure 8.4 Barriers to free play (National Children’s Bureau, 2007)
Making friends and more
Despite these disturbing limitations, the ‘potential of play as a tool for inclusion’ (PLEYIn, 2011) is impossible to deny when research uncovers such rich and compelling evidence as the following qualitative account:
‘A little boy [John who has special needs] is trying to cycle on a low, hand-pedalled bike. He keeps rolling backwards into the wall. He is very determined and keeps going for a long while, moving the bike away from the wall with his feet, but he cannot cycle forward because the ground is uneven. After a while an older boy cycles past, he signals to John if he wants to sit on the back of his tricycle, which John does. They ride back and forward in the playground a couple of times together.’ (Observation notes – Barnardo’s, 2005)
Furthermore, study evidence from the Barnardo’s project also mapped the number of children able to make new friends (see Figure 8.5 below) as a direct consequence of inclusive play opportunities, and reported that ‘the longer disabled and non-disabled children spent getting to know each other … the more likely they were to interact and play together’.
Figure 8.5 Proportion of children observed making new friends (Barnardo’s, 2005)
The ideal outdoor space
Outdoor spaces which set out to encourage inclusive play must accommodate not only those who are active, outgoing and perhaps revel in rough and tumble play, but also those who are more tentative and wish to observe, test the water, and then gently begin to participate as their courage grows. Casey believes this means that:
‘… the wider the variety of play and ways of playing the environment supports, the more inclusive it is of children with a wide range of abilities and needs’. (Casey, 2011)
Juno Hollyhock, executive director of Learning Through Landscapes, has also addressed the issue of inclusive outdoor spaces and suggests six contrasting environmental parameters (see Figure 8.6) she considers necessary to ‘create spaces that have opportunity and potential for all children regardless of their ability’.
Figure 8.6 An outdoor play space for everyone (Inspired by Hollyhock, undated)
In this model, choice is the essential feature: those with cognitive or sensory impairment may sometimes prefer quiet sheltered areas with contrasting light and textures; a range of different surfaces and levels can facilitate participation for those who need mobility assistance; children with hearing impairments will appreciate quieter spots with face-to-face seating which makes communication with others so much easier; and a variety of fixed equipment and seating can also double as ‘traffic management’ devices, creating calmer backwaters as a welcome contrast to the ‘all-action’ open spaces.
Two useful additions to Hollyhock’s model play space might be:
- a commitment to include some areas, resources and activities which can be easily accessed by children whose social competence, language and play skills may well be at a much lower levels than most others in the group
- the inclusion and identification of areas, resources and activities which can offer a controllable measure of risk and challenge and which can be enjoyed by any child, with or without impairments – bearing in mind, of course, that an impairment can significantly alter the degree of challenge such features may present.
Considering the types of play favoured by different children, a small-scale study by Hestenes and Carroll (Figure 8.7), involving both typically developing children and those with delayed development or visual impairment, indicates that each of these groups showed a clear preference for similar types of play activity. However, as the diagram shows, there was nevertheless a distinct divergence in engagement with solitary and cooperative modes of play. As regards playing together and mutual understandings, researchers noted that the extent to which the typically developing children recognised, or could predict, the needs and difficulties of the children with disabilities influenced their efforts to engage in playing together.
Figure 8.7 Children’s play preferences (Inspired by Hestenes and Carroll, 2000)
Whilst interactive play can be a challenge for children with many types of impairment, Thomas and Smith note that it becomes even more difficult for those with an autistic spectrum disorder (ASD). For these children, patterns of play are often:
‘… repetitive, sensory, isolated, concrete and lacking in imagination. Often there is only a limited range of toys used. These factors do not facilitate these children in playing with others, hence their social contact is limited, as are their play skills.’ (Thomas and Smith, 2004)
Though such considerations may inhibit some aspects of participation, the tactful support of skilled playworkers and childcare professionals can do much to ensure those with ASD impairments are still able to access and positively experience many of the important benefits of outdoor play.
Stressing the inherent value of the outdoors as an enriching environment for everyone, Casey’s comment offers an important message to conclude this discussion:
‘Instead of highlighting differences between children in a negative way, a good outdoor play environment can absorb and support diverse play behaviours. Inclusive environments are those in which it is possible to play in varied ways that … can accommodate children’s different ways of being and expressing themselves.’ (Casey, 2011)