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October 2014

A publication of the U.S. Access Board and the National Center on Accessibility

From 2008 to 2012, the National Center on Accessibility (NCA) at Indiana University-Bloomington conducted a longitudinal study on the accessibility of playground surfaces. The research study was funded by the U.S. Access Board. The information presented in this publication is based on the research findings and presented as guidance to public playground owners and operators.

Reproduction and dissemination of this publication is encouraged.

Selecting an Accessible Play Surface Is One of the Most Important Decisions

A little boy comes down the slide as he is assisted by his mom.  A wheelchair is seated next to the bottom of the slide.The U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (2011) estimates there to be 2.8 million school-aged children with disabilities in the United States. The Census Bureau (2009) estimates that one in every seven American families is affected by disability. For children with and without disabilities, the community playground can facilitate a positive environment for physical activity and inclusion. Today, lack of physical activity is considered one of the leading factors contributing to poor health among children. The neighborhood playground fulfills a critical role in community wellness, enabling children to play with friends and burn calories at the same time.

When the playground has barriers prohibiting use by a child with a disability, the opportunity for play and physical activity is lost. Inaccessible surfaces can pose barriers for children with disabilities who may use canes, crutches, walkers or wheelchairs from ambulating through the play area. Pushing a wheelchair over loose gravel or sand requires tremendous physical effort. When so much effort is exerted, little to no energy is left for play.

The presence of physical barriers can prevent children with disabilities from accessing all play elements on the playground. Most significantly, inclusive play between children with disabilities and children without disabilities is threatened when the playground does not have accessible equipment and surfaces. Physical barriers also prohibit adult caregivers with disabilities from engaging with their children and/or responding when a child is in need of assistance.

Recreation professionals and playground owners are confronted with questions of how to install and maintain safe and accessible public playgrounds that are fun; promote inclusion and physical activity; are cost effective and able to withstand a full life cycle of public use.

Choosing play surfaces that are accessible and that can be maintained as accessible surfaces, becomes one of the most important decisions during the playground planning and design phases. The purpose of this guide is to provide practical information that every public playground owner should know about the accessibility of their playground surfaces.