Front-loaded and momentous; the human physical and cognitive development path is in its critical state during our early years. The stimuli and activities we encounter are foundational and lasting, deeming it crucial that children are provided with full-spectrum sensory nutrition to allow them the best opportunity to develop during their formative, early years.
For as long as schools, parks and childcare facilities have existed, playgrounds have held a primary role in child development. They provide children with a place to socialize, exert themselves, create, and experience nature first-hand. We, as a society, have been responsible for shaping the way our children interact with their surroundings. Unfortunately, a story is only as good as its source, and in this regard, the way we’re currently approaching how we cater to those on the fringe; those with physical cognitive, and behavioural disabilities, is exacerbating their pre-existing limitations.
As natural playground advocates, we could list off the nearly innumerable benefits an organic playscape offers over traditional plastic and steel, however, before any of that can be considered, the discussion we really need to have pertains to true accessibility. Access to nature, access to play, and a child’s access to realizing their potential.
Sensory stimulation is the very origin of a child’s development pathway. Stimulus leads to cognition, which leads to encoding within the cortex of the brain, which leads to memory and response development. This is the essence of how we learn and how our environments shape us. Our responsibility then, as an advocate group entrenched firmly in the natural playground niche, is how we capitalize on the opportunity to maximize the enrichment we can offer children.
There are numerous sensory inputs tied to what most would consider the traditional consensus; sight, smell, taste, sound, touch, vestibular and proprioception. These are the stimuli mentioned earlier, integral in initiating the process of development. It shouldn’t be a surprise that even those with disabilities possess the ability to sense all, if not the majority of this gamut, and require their stimulation to develop correctly. It’s a potentially damaging oversight to ignore this; the goal of an accessible playground should be to answer the question “how do we engage those with disabilities?” rather than “how can those with disabilities interact with our playground?”. The entire approach is backwards and ignores important development that those with varying disabilities sorely require and would otherwise be in deficit-of.
It’s time the community realizes that all we’re doing by maintaining old standards is leaving those with disabilities an uphill battle, to achieve the same opportunities, in the wake of oversimplification.
Here are some frightening statistics to bear in mind; individuals who use a wheelchair spend less than an hour outside per day, with only 37% of them even leaving the house altogether. They spend more than 50 hours a week on screens and roam alone less than 500 meters from their home.
Our children have 20% less muscle mass than the prior generation and triple the rates of cold and flu. Now, add a growing urban society that currently defines accessibility with different colours of toxic paving and you can rest assured that if you use a wheelchair, you're going likely to experience exponentially less contact with nature and substantially fewer development opportunities than the status quo.
The best solution will focus on what is best for our children; the things they have lost, what we want them to learn, the behaviors we want to encourage, and the obstacles that our modern way of living has presented to them. It is normal now for all of us to talk about the frightening trends in childhood obesity, bullying, absenteeism, injury, attention spans, depression, community engagement, and environmental stewardship. Playgrounds should be at the front line in our efforts to address these concerns.
In addition to sensory stimulation, natural playgrounds offer an array of quintessential development benefits, the most prominent being exposure to nature itself. While urban sprawl has progressively lead to increasing concern regarding the sterilization of our public spaces, it's more important than ever that natural habitats and organic materials are incorporated into our play space design.
According to the worlds most accomplished immunologists in the 2016 Helsinki Alert, contact with the micro and macro-organisms found in a biodiverse natural environment is essential to the development of a robust, resistant immune system. The more contact, the better. Lack of contact with a biodiverse environment has been shown to have a causal relationship with increasing rates of ADHD, stress related and sensory processing disorders, diabetes, inflammatory diseases, IBD, and certain cancers. Mitigated access to these types of environments will only further augment pre-existing health and behavioural barriers.
Add to this, natural playgrounds are living, breathing ecosystems in and of themselves; full of flowers, trees, shrubs and logs native to North America. Each playground becomes an inner city island of ecological restoration and an important home or stopover for Canadian fauna. Birds nesting in the trees, bugs in the logs, and worms in the compost allow for endless teaching opportunities in the outdoor classroom.
From a living willow tunnel, to their own garden plot, children are surrounded by nature and are encouraged to care for it. This stewardship translates into a new generation of environmental caretakers. The care we show as a community, in how we design and build their play space, results in our children feeling cared-for and respected.
We couldn't take a comprehensive look at accessibility if we didn't also assess how we intend children to interact with our collective playground structures and areas. Effective, accessible playground design should not only remove physical barriers, but should also stress inclusivity, regardless of ability.
Non-prescriptive play is at the forefront of this progressive movement. Build a playground that allows for a sliding-scale of effective interactivity and use, and you've built a playground for everyone. Utilizing practical slopes and organic, ambiguous structures in components instead of large steps, elevated horizontal surfaces, and a prescriptive pathway allows for children to embrace, and receive benefit from the components on an effective level relative to their ability and cognition.
There is another, yet equally important conversation that deserves to see the light of day in order to fully pay homage to our accessibility conversation. Without pigeon-holing autism spectrum disorder into the “disability” debate, we have to understand that, especially in today’s sociocultural climate, it’s become difficult, if not frowned-upon, to define or limit one’s identity by their disposition.
Autism, and similarly grouped behavioral dispositions have triggered a de-streamlining in the way our collective society views the diagnostic criteria for a disability, and as such, we believe we’re duty-bound to also re-examine how we approach “accessibility” as a whole.
Discussed previously, the ancient preconceived notion that “accessibility” covered the removal of physical barriers alone, precluded an extremely important discussion regarding behavioral disabilities. Often, while the physical barrier may not be present, those with Autism Spectrum Disorder for instance, may experience cognitive dissonance in the way they process the stimuli presented to them, or manifest their reactions.
Offering playground components to those with cognitive disabilities that are suited to their disposition, or its therapy, should absolutely be included in our collective interpretation of accessibility moving forward; it’s foundational and absolutely essential in order to allow these children a fighting chance at optimizing the rest of their lives.
Quiet, contemplative areas to avoid sensory overload, removal of "high points" to disperse aggressive-dominant behaviours, and the ability to mitigate social interaction at the child's discretion are all progressive design concepts integral in a paradigm shift towards truly accessible playgrounds.
The AODA (Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act) and ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) are currently playing a crucial role in helping to alter the way we approach accessibility compliance. While it won’t help with pre-existing playgrounds that carry their legacy of pseudo-accessibility, it has slowly begun to shape the mentality firms must assimilate towards in order to offer genuine interactivity and enrichment to the full breadth of their audience.
While heavily structured towards accessibility for physical disabilities at present, continued pressure from firms and communities engaged in the progressive accessibility movement can only serve to further push the needle forward.
Gross motor skills, fine motor skills, dramatic play, creative play and quiet contemplative play are all activities that should be accounted-for, on top of basic design standards for physical accommodation and mobility throughout the playground for those facing their corresponding circumstances in the physical, cognitive and developmental realms.
We’re not about to suggest that there is a perfectly accessible playground that will provide the ideal balance of stimulus as a blanket solution to cater to all disabilities. There are, however, certainly more appropriate, accessible options developed through forward-thinking that are founded in the modern pedagogy of child development to best serve our children.
The long-established norms in “accessible” playground design are simply insufficient; antiquated by today’s standards, yet somehow still firmly endured despite vast academic advances in the fields of human cognitive, behavioral, and physical development. It's our hope that continued pressure towards a progressive ideology in true "access to nature and play for all" will serve to leave no child behind in the pursuit of thorough formative enrichment.