Designing for Inclusive Play: Applying the Principles of Universal Design to the Playground

October 1, 2007

Jennifer K. Skulski, CPSI
National Center on Accessibility, Indiana University – Bloomington


The public playground is, by far, one of the most important settings for child development. It is one of the few environments where a child has the freedom to run and jump, climb, swing and leap, yell, reign, conjure, create, dream or meditate. In this complicated world that we live in, the playground is a safe and common place for children to come together, to discover the value of play, to learn about each other, to recognize their similarities and differences, to meet physical and social challenges, to leave comfort zones and evolve into the little young people they are meant to be. It is a microcosm for life lessons, from challenge and risk to conflict resolution and cooperation. When we design for these purposes and apply the Principles of Universal Design, we design for inclusive play where every child, regardless of ability or disability, is welcomed and benefits physically, developmentally, emotionally and socially from the environment.

Unfortunately, since the release of the Accessibility Guidelines for Play Areas were first issued in October 2000 and even the subsequent release of the 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design, the task of designing accessible playgrounds has become a numbers game. Count:

  • How many ground level play activities?
  • How many accessible ground level play activities?
  • How many elevated play activities?
  • How many elevated play activities are accessible by transfer systems?
  • How many elevated play activities are accessible by ramp?
  • Do we have to have a ramp? That costs more!!
  • Let’s just take away a couple activities!!Whew, we only need to have a transfer step now!!

Design creativity has been ousted, replaced by confusion and complacency in the quest to meet the minimum accessibility guidelines. Herein lies the problem. When the planning team only shoots to meet the minimum requirements, play value is ignored and our children lose out in the process. Designing fun and creative playscapes that are accessible to children with disabilities does not need to be a numbers game. If we apply the Principles of Universal Design, using a human-centered design approach, we can create environments with play value that benefit children of all abilities.

Accessible Design vs. Universal Design

Before we explore the application of Universal Design on the playground, it is important to understand the Principles of Universal Design and the difference between Universal Design and Accessible Design.

Accessible Design describes a site, building, facility, or portion thereof that complies with the minimum accessibility standards as set forth under the Americans with Disabilities Act, Architectural Barriers Act or local building code. Accessible Design has the distinct purpose of meeting the environmental and communication needs of the functional limitations of people with disabilities. Accessible design aims at minimum requirements to achieve usability.

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 (Center for Universal Design, 1997). The term Universal Design was first coined by architect and advocate Ron Mace, who was the Director of the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University. While Accessible Design is focused on the needs of people with disabilities, Universal Design considers the wide spectrum of human abilities. It aims to exceed minimum standards to meet the needs of the greatest number of people. The Principles of Universal Design were developed by a consortium of universal design researchers and practitioners. Read more about the seven principles and their respective guidelines. The discussion which follows gives examples of the application of the Principles of Universal Design to the public playground environment.

Accessible Design and Universal Design are not interchangeable terms. Sometimes people will use the phrase “universally accessible.” This phrase suggests the design too meets the minimum requirements for a select population of users. It is focused still on the functional limitations of the select user group rather than the broad abilities of a consumer-driven marketplace. “Universally accessible” is NOT synonymous with “Universal Design” and its use to describe “Universal Design” is not recommended.

Prescriptive Design vs. Universal Design

Prescriptive Design is the design of a piece of equipment or environment specific to a small user group or individual and based on a remedy to minimize or compensate for the group’s or individual’s functional limitation. Over the years, several “experts” have come on to the playground design scene recommending “prescriptive designs” for specific user groups. Recommendations have included assertions, some based on research, some based only on opinion. For example, some say that children with Down Syndrome have smaller hands so handrails on the playground should be smaller in diameter. [The anthropometrics of children varies based on age ranges, different diameter handrails could benefit younger and older children along with adults.] Children with wheelchairs should have swings that hold the wheelchair. [Wheelchair platform swings are not recommended for public playgrounds according to the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission.] Plastic slides short-circuit cochlear implants, therefore only metal slides should be provided. [Research on the effects of static electricity related to plastic slides and cochlear implants is inconclusive at the time of this article’s publication. Drain, 2006.] Children with autism need “quiet” spaces on the playground. [Child development specialists have been recommending separation of spaces for active play and passive play for years. “Quiet” spaces can be of benefit to all children. Christiansen, Vogelsong, 1996; Frost, et. al, 2004.]

“Prescriptive” design in public spaces meant to serve a wide range of users and abilities can become very costly. Prescriptive or “adaptive” design may be more suitable for individualized spaces meant for a small group of users or one individual to use on a daily basis like home, workstation or automobile modifications. “Prescriptive” design can also foster segregation in public spaces. It labels spaces like “this is the quiet space for children with autism” or “this is the special swing for children in wheelchairs.” When they are labeled “special” or “handicapped” the equipment is not likely to be used by anyone else. While prescriptive design may be suitable for a residential playground or specialized institution, it is not recommended for the public playground.

Applying the Principles of Universal Design to Playground Design

Now let’s discuss the Principles of Universal Design on the public playground and how the application of the principles can facilitate inclusive play. As examples are discussed below, reflect on your own experiences with various playground environments. Where have you encountered examples of Accessible Design–instances where the design met the minimum accessibility guidelines for a people with disabilities? Where have you encountered examples of Universal Design—instances where the design was driven to meet the needs of the widest spectrum of users?

Some of the examples may use one or several of the Principles of Universal Design. In no way should the presentation of the following examples be considered an endorsement of Universal Design by the Center for Universal Design or the National Center on Accessibility. As is with all design, the discussion of the examples is subjective, each containing advantages and disadvantages in design. Not a single design is perfect; they could each be improved upon. The examples are presented herein to challenge you to push your design to the next level.

Equitable use

Do all children use the same route to get to the equipment? Or is the main route inaccessible and traveled by the majority of the children while the accessible route is separate and out of the way from friends? Separate design is segregated design. Universal design is inclusive design where families and friends enter and use the facility together. A member should not be segregated from the group because of his or her ability or use of an assistive device. Instead, the principle of equitable use embraces the diversity of our society by designing for everyone to have an equal opportunity to participate.

Two examples in the slide show can be cited here. The first example is a playground where the accessible route from the parking and entry point of the park meets up with the playground surface. Typically in an “accessible” playground there is only one accessible entry point into the playground surface. In this Universal Design example, the entire perimeter of the playground is flush level with the playground surface so users can access the playground equipment from various locations at the park. In addition, the entire surface of the playground utilizes an accessible unitary surface that is firm and stable.

The second example is at a playground where the elevated composite structure has a platform more than 15 ft off the ground. Many skeptics think it is impossible to create wheelchair access to structures this high and therefore design only with steps or ladders thereby excluding a segment of the population. However, designers on this playground utilized the principle of equitable use to ensure everyone could access the elevated platform and see the view from above. The natural cascade landscape at the site was used as the backdrop for a boardwalk to the elevated platform. The boardwalk is designed so the slope does not exceed the 5% maximum grade for an accessible route. Designing to the 5% slope as opposed to the maximum 8% slope for a ramp also eliminated the need for handrails and landings.

Not every means of access or piece of equipment will facilitate equitable use. Therefore, planners must consider that where the same means of access, like a ladder, is not usable by everyone, an equivalent mean, like a ramp, is necessary. A small portion of users will be able to use the ladder. A larger portion of users will be able to use the ramp. To only provide transfer steps or climber to an elevated structure ignores the principle of equitable use and segregates groups at a play component that could offer tremendous play opportunities and play value. Part of the play value offered by an elevated structure is the opportunity to see the view from a different angle, to look down over the kingdom so to speak. This is that “skyscraper” phenomenon. Tourists don’t go to the base of the Sears Tower or Empire State Building, look up and say “Oh that’s a nice” and move on to the next attraction. One of the central purposes of making the visit to these extraordinary engineering wonders is to go up to the top observation floors and see the view from above. “Wow! What a breathtaking view! I’ve never seen anything like this!” This is the same experience children (and adults) can get from the elevated play structure.

Flexibility in Use

Is the element designed with flexibility so that it can be used the way it works best for each individual? The principle of flexibility in use accepts that not everyone uses a piece of equipment the same way. So how can the design accommodate all the different preferences that individuals may have?

On elevated play structures, designers must recognize that each individual user will prefer a different mean of access and, as such, should plan accordingly. Some kids might want to climb the rock wall to the elevated platform, some may take the steps, and some might prefer to stay in their wheelchair and take the ramp. Designers have considered the widest spectrum of users where elevated composite structures provide multiple means of access including climbers, ladders, stairs, transfer systems and ramps.

One misperception about accessible playground design is that materials that are not considered accessible, like sand, cannot or should not be included on an accessible playground. This extreme expulsion is not necessary. There are several materials that offer great play value. The issue of use becomes a matter of design. Yes, sand is considered an inaccessible surface as part of the accessible route. But if the containment structure is thoughtfully designed and facilitates flexibility of use a sand play area can provide wonderful play opportunities. Two examples are shown in the slideshow where children have the option to either play with the sand at a sand table or sit in the sand area itself or on the adjacent transfer system or raised containment edging. If mom is supervising play, the design options also give her the formidable choice to restrict play to the table area or open up to the larger sand play area. In other words, does she want to restrict play to the sand table and only have to clean up sand on hands or open up use to the larger area and vacuum out the car later?

We are just starting to see some truly creative designs emerge from these initial concepts. Some new designs include sand tables at multiple heights for use standing or sitting; sand containment areas with a zero depth entry or ramp into the sand surface along with raised containment edging that allows both children and adults to sit along the side of the containment area; and the migration of sand and water play in the same area.

Simple and Intuitive Use

What does the play component “do”? Can kids of all ages (even adults) figure out how to use it? If the component is meant to be manipulated or operated, is the design simple and intuitive or does it require an operator’s manual? This principle is often considered by equipment manufacturers during the design of manipulative play panels. Effective designs take into account that the component will be used by children of all ages and cognitive levels.

Simple and intuitive use can convey the design team’s human-centered approach and respect for each person that will use the component, especially in circumstances where the principle is subtly integrated into the design of the component as a whole. One of the most beautiful characteristics of Universal Design is when the purposeful design is so subtle it almost goes unnoticed. This is the polar opposite of Accessible Design where you can spot the accessible ramp, lavatory or toilet stall from a mile away. The accessible tilted mirror above the sink in the bathroom screams “Accessible Design.” The full length mirror adjacent to the lavatory whispers “Universal Design.” The medical sink with the goose neck faucet and paddle controls screams “Accessible Design.” The automatic sensor faucet, towel dispenser and hand dryer whisper “Universal Design.”

Spring rockers continue to be one of the more popular play components. However for a child that isn’t tall enough to mount the spring rocker independently or a child who has to transfer to it from an assistive device, the task can be quite difficult without a hand support and a step to leverage a foot, knee or rear. In this example of the bumble bee spring rocker, the design team extended the width and depth of the wing so that it could either be used as a step for an ambulatory child or a transfer platform for a child using a wheelchair.

One of the pitfalls of accessible playground design has been the addition of transfer steps, ramps and platforms that scream “BORING, Accessible Design.” They are usually dark in color, hard and industrial in appearance reminiscent of a fire escape or factory catwalk. The lack of attention or creativity to the design is a lost opportunity for the design team to facilitate imaginative play.

During preliminary research conducted by the National Center on Accessibility from 2001-2002, we observed children with disabilities on the playground. Of the children that used an electric or manual wheelchair as their primary means for mobility, not a single child spontaneously transferred to use the transfer system to the elevated composite play structure. During interviews with parents and adult caregivers, the majority did not perceive the “steps” as a component intended for transfer from the assistive device to bump up from step to step to use the elevated play components (NCA, 2002).

One design team has addressed the “boring” standard transfer system design by transforming it into a mountain. The transfer platform and steps are subtly molded into the side of the mountain. Here the design team has given the transfer system a creative new meaning by giving it a new shape, form and function for everyone. The design is simple and intuitive. More so than the standard design, this example is more likely to relay information to the potential user that it is meant to be climbed by inviting the user to transfer and bump up from step to step.

Perceptible Information

Can users understand the information presented? The principle of perceptible information considers that people learn in various modes. Some people are visual learners, some auditory, some experiential. A playground is a creative environment where multiple modes can thrive. Therefore, it is to the benefit of all users to provide information in multiple formats. For example, playground owners often install a welcome sign at the entrance to the playground which states common safety considerations and explains the age range for intended users. To differentiate play equipment for appropriate aged users, manufacturers and planners will use color schemes. One color scheme is used for equipment serving children 2 to 5 years and other color scheme is used for equipment serving children 5 to 12 years. Sometimes a color scheme is used to offset safety barriers and railings from actual climbing equipment. In another example, the design team has creatively used the available color options for surfacing to define the use zones for spinning ground level play components.

Tolerance for Error

Is it okay for the user to make a mistake without getting hurt? A playground with play value has been designed for challenge. It has been designed with the purposeful intentions of providing opportunities for children to try something new to see if they can do it. Most importantly, the challenge has been designed with safety as a top priority. If the child fails at first try, she has failed safely and is encouraged to try again until she succeeds. Safety is paramount when it comes to playground design. For as much time as playground equipment manufacturers are working on research and development of new safety innovations, kids are spending just as much time trying to figure out new uses for equipment on the playground. The principle of tolerance for error emphasizes the need to minimize hazards and provide warnings or fail safe features. In the slideshow example, care has been taken to design openings on elevated structures that permit the passage of one child at a time to use the slide or climber, while prohibiting unintended use or passage.

Low Physical Effort

Is the accessible route through the playground and to the accessible play components designed with a surface that is level and easy to maneuver? Or is the surface uneven and unstable requiring the user to exert extra effort? Is the user tired or physically exhausted from traversing the playground surfacing before she even gets to the first play component? The trend in playground design these days is to design with equipment and spaces that will help children burn calories through physical activity. However, physical activity is only one outcome compared to the myriad benefits children receive from a playground designed with purposeful play value. The principle of low physical effort emphasizes design where individuals can use the environment with little exertion or fatigue. Equipment can require extra physical effort. However the surface to get there should not. One child, because of her disability, should not have to exert more physical effort than any other child to move from one area of the playground to another. If all of the child’s energy is exerted on traversing the accessible route and surfacing, the child will have no energy left to actually play with or on the equipment.

Size and Space for Approach and Use

Is there enough space to approach and use the various play components? Does the design accommodate the wide variety of user body shapes, sizes and abilities? The seventh principle, and perhaps the most rudimentary of all, addresses the considerations for size and space for approach and use. It is founded in the fact that we, as humans, come in all shapes and sizes. Designers that acknowledge this fact and plan appropriately are more likely to output a final product that is effectively usable by a greater number of people than a design that is aimed at accommodating only the “average” size user in the population. A route to playground components that is designed to accommodate everyone from its youngest and smallest users to its oldest and biggest users will be more welcoming and usable for a greater number of people than a route that is designed for the “average” of all users. When the route is designed to the “average” size of all users, the population in the upper and lower quartile ranges, likely 50 percent of the total population, may be excluded from use of the design. In the examples pictured, the routes on the elevated composite play structure are wide enough to accommodate children and adults using various assistive devices including wheelchairs and walkers. The routes also provide space for the assistive devices to be “parked” while the child uses a play component.

When this seventh principle is embraced in the design process, more people will feel welcomed and included in the final design. An excellent example of this principle on the playground is when play components are designed for Pappa Bear, Mamma Bear and Baby Bear. Parents can play with their children in environments where they feel physically comfortable. In the next example, two spring poles are provided. The component on the left has a wider base that can be used while sitting or standing. While Baby Bear is using the spring pole on the right which is designed for little feet, Big Daddy Bear can plant his big feet firmly on the spring pole on the left and the two can play side by side.

Sometimes a child, because of ability or perhaps fear factor, is resistant to try a new play component. For example if the slide or swing is designed to accommodate a larger person, mom or dad could use it to demonstrate or cradle the child in comfort on their lap.


“Long-held and extensively supported truisms in human development are that no two individuals are the same in any developmental dimension, and that each individual is unique, with each having different needs and abilities. As we reconsider current trends in children’s play and playgrounds, we must direct time and energy to ensuring that children of all ages have opportunities to play and learn together…” (Frost, Brown, Sutterby, and Thornton, 2004). According to the U.S. Census Bureau (2005), 20 million American families are affected by disability. Two out of every seven families have at least one family member with a disability. More than 17 years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the first generation of children with disabilities to experience full access to public accommodations and services is reaching adulthood. This generation has a greater expectation than its elders. They have an expectation that they will be able to access public spaces with their family members and friends as a fact rather than an exception to the rule. Our role as recreation providers and advocates for children’s play is to ensure that each public play space is not only accessible, but welcoming and inclusive of the many children and adult caregivers that will use it. If we utilize a human-centered approach at the onset of the planning process and encompass the Principles of Universal Design, the result is likely just that, a playground that is welcoming, inclusive and FUN for everyone!

About this Article

This monograph was developed by the National Center on Accessibility for the National Center on Physical Activity and Disability under a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

About the Author

Jennifer Skulski, CPSI, is the Director of Marketing and Special Projects for the National Center on Accessibility at Indiana University. She has provided training, technical assistance and consultation on accessibility for people with disabilities in parks and recreation since 1992. She is a Certified Playground Safety Inspector and member of the ASTM F08.63 Subcommittee on Playground Surfaces.


Center for Universal Design (1997). The Principles of Universal Design, Version 2.0. Raleigh, NC: North Carolina State University.

Christiansen, M. & Vogelsong, H. (1996). Play it safe: An anthology of playground safety. Ashburn, VA: National Recreation and Park Association.

Drain, A. (May 4, 2006). Engineers hope to provide smooth slide for kids with cochlear implants. St Louis, MO: Washington University. Retrieved from

Frost, J., Brown, P.S., Sutterby, J. & Thornton, C. (2004). The developmental benefits of playgrounds. Olney, MD: Association for Childhood Education International.

National Center on Accessibility. (2002). Playground accessibility study. Bloomington, IN: National Center on Accessibility at Indiana University. Unpublished.

U.S. Census Bureau. (July 2005). Disability and American families: 2000. Washington, DC: U.S. Census Bureau. Retrieved from


The Principles of Universal Design were conceived and developed by The Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State University. Use or application of the Principles in any form by an individual or organization is separate and distinct from the Principles and does not constitute or imply acceptance or endorsement by the Center for Universal Design of the use or application. This article contains images of play components from several manufacturers. Presentation and discussion of the play components does NOT represent an endorsement of the play components by the National Center on Accessibility.

The citation for this article is:

Skulski, J. (October 2007). Designing for inclusive play: Applying the principles of universal design to the playground. Bloomington, IN: National Center on Accessibility, Indiana University-Bloomington. Retrieved from