The government plans to spend £235m on improving playground provision, but what can be done to make sure all children enjoy the new facilities? Crispin Andrews invesigates

Pathfinder projects which will eventually see the government invest £235m in play spaces over the next three years are under way. Will the new facilities be fully inclusive? Early indications are positive, although projects are still at the planning and consultation stages.

In Nottingham, the city council is calling on its inclusive play strategy and the expertise of local authority inclusion officers to ensure its new play provision will meet everyone’s needs; in Sunderland, work is being dovetailed with the authority’s Aiming High pathfinder project which provides short breaks for disabled children. Portsmouth City Council’s website states that its free-to-use play spaces will be aimed at eight- to 13-year-olds, including those with disabilities.

Issy Cole-Hamilton, Play England’s head of policy and research, welcomes such joined-up approaches and insists that inclusion must be at the centre of good play practice, not seen as an add-on. She encourages providers to look at all the possibilities when coming up with their designs, saying: ‘If given the opportunity, disabled children and children with special educational needs can do a lot more than people think. Work with the special schools or mainstream schools where disabled children are included and find out what provision they offer.’

More than a matter of physical access
Every Disabled Child Matters (EDCM) – a campaign to get rights and justice for every disabled child involving Contact a Family (CaF), the Council for Disabled Children (CDC), Mencap and the Special Educational Consortium (SEC) – is also calling for play environments to be accessible to disabled children. Christine Lenehan, director of CDC and an EDCM board member, says: ‘This isn’t just about physical access but also improving attitudes through staff training, access to transport and safety. Without these changes, disabled children and young people miss out on ordinary childhood experiences and the chance to lead independent lives.’

Government’s commitment to build or upgrade playgrounds and set up new supervised adventure playgrounds was outlined in the Children’s Plan in December 2007. Last April, 20 local authorities were selected as play pathfinders, each receiving around £2m capital funding plus significant revenue funding to develop innovative, inclusive play sites with challenging equipment and natural landscapes. The 20 local authorities are also in the process of developing plans for building one new staffed adventure playground, with indoor and outdoor facilities, in an area where provision is currently lacking. Another 43 local authorities have been given capital funding of approximately £1m each to develop their own public play areas.

In autumn 2008, a further 15 play pathfinders will be selected. By 2011, 30 new adventure playgrounds and up to 3,500 public play areas will have been built with all local authorities given the opportunity to get involved. The secretary of state for children, schools and families, Ed Balls, believes that having time, space and opportunity to play freely and safely is one of the defining characteristics of a good childhood. ‘Children need places which allow them to meet their friends and have fun – being able to burn off their energy in unstructured play is an important part of maintaining a healthy weight and life,’ he says. The secretary of state for culture, media and sport, Andy Burnham, adds: ‘Good play areas are well used by children and parents alike and provide an excellent social focus for the community, but they don’t exist everywhere. We want to give children a stimulating and safe environment where they can let off steam, mix with others and get active. The enjoyment children get from play can give them a lifelong love of being active and also build up a passion for sport.’

Government is encouraging local authorities to work with children, young people and their communities to ensure these play facilities really make a difference in their local area and Mencap children’s information and policy officer, Sarah Mepham, is delighted to hear that in these consultations local authorities are making a specific point of speaking to young disabled people and their families.

‘You have to be proactive and seek out young disabled people’s opinions,’ she says. ‘Often they can’t fill in forms and might not already be using existing play areas when the canvassing is done.’

During last summer’s playschemes and playdays, play workers in Nottingham have been handing out colour-coded spidergram questionnaires to children, asking for their opinions on the neighbourhood play area. How well are the play areas looked after? Are they convenient? How much do the children enjoy playing there? More than 800 replies have been collected, with play workers given a specific remit to help children with special educational needs (SEN) understand the process and ensure that their views are taken into account. During playschemes held at some of the city’s special schools and also at two one-day events aimed specifically at encouraging children with SEN and their families to use play facilities, workers also observed the children’s interaction with the facilities, talked to parents about their children’s needs and advised the youngsters themselves about using the equipment.

‘We’ve decided to use some of the government funding to create a new senior inclusion development post to oversee the pathfinder project,’ says Nottingham’s pathfinder manager Celina Adams. The city council’s existing inclusion development officer will also be working on the strategy for both the play areas and the new adventure playground being proposed for the Bernwood Park estate in the north of the city, to ensure that the needs of disabled children are considered.
Sunderland’s play pathfinder project manager Carol Lewis is also at the consultation stage. She adds that it is important to take into account the surrounding area within which the play facilities will be located when looking at issues of inclusion.

‘Changing areas and toilet facilities might be needed if children with SEN are going to utilise play areas,’ she says, before adding. ‘People want somewhere that is exciting and that they can call their own, but they also want to be safe.’

Rachel Scott from the KIDS charity for disabled children explains that the issue of safety during play was highlighted by children themselves in last year’s consultation on the Children’s Plan. ‘Many children feel threatened when teenagers and older children come into their play areas,’ she says.  Sarah Mepham at Mencap stresses the importance of combating bullying within play settings used by both disabled and non-disabled children.

Both agree that within organised play areas, the key factor is training of staff to ensure they understand the needs of disabled children and how to ensure that everyone can take part together. In informal play areas, the idea of play rangers is being considered to provide some sort of supervisory presence within parks and give both children and parents a first port of call if they have any problems.

Inclusive play accommodates the whole community
Issy Cole-Hamilton asks providers who are designing play areas to incorporate equipment and other features that all children can use, rather than providing specific pieces of equipment for each impairment. ‘Everyone can use sand and some sensory equipment is great fun whatever your needs,’ she says.

Darren Terry of equipment suppliers Taylor Made agrees. He strongly believes that whenever possible playground equipment should be designed and constructed in a way that takes into account age, ability and impairment, whether it be sensory, physical, intellectual or mental. ‘We have worked with a number of organisations in designing, manufacturing and installing special needs playground solutions,’ he says. These include a fort with disabled access at a special school in Cambridge and a tower play system with ramped access and adapted swings at Calvert Trust in Devon, an activity centre for children with special needs.

‘We have also included sensory shelters and ramped outdoor stages; other standard equipment includes bird’s-nest swings, bed-swings, rumble bridges, rattle bridges and double slides that accommodate two people. It is easy to adapt our standard units to accommodate wheelchairs, for example, with the addition of ramps, handrails, wider slides and types of swing such as bird’s nest.’
But there are other considerations when designing an inclusive playground, Darren says. ‘[These] include topography, accessibility – so fencing, entrances and exits being distinguishable perhaps through different colours, distance from residential areas or signage.’

He adds: ‘It is very easy when examining inclusion to immediately think about disability. The essential thing when planning and designing inclusive play facilities is that they accommodate the needs of the whole community and take into account the age of the anticipated users, demographic, ability and ethnicity.’

For Jo Sheridan of Hand Made Places, which builds playground equipment and outdoor classrooms, inclusive design is about providing specific equipment to meet certain needs but also making sure that there is equipment available that children with different needs can use in different ways. ‘Ramps, platforms, bridges can be used in a variety of ways, as can mirrors, periscopes and blackboards,’ she says. ‘Structures can be made so children are able to access things at different heights and with areas inside that can be used for different purposes – such as sensory or musical areas.’

Sarah Mepham reminds providers that when designing inclusive playgrounds it’s important also to think about older children with certain impairments, who might be outside the target age range for the play area, but who because of developmental delay still want to play there. ‘You also need to think about providing a space that whole families would want to visit,’ she says. ‘Many parents will want to play with their children in these spaces.’ Jo Sheridan adds that structures need to be robust enough to withstand the sort of physical play some older youngsters with certain impairments might prefer.

Pathfinder local authorities seem to be aware of the necessity to make their play areas and adventure playgrounds inclusive. Backed by supporting organisations and governmental insistence, they also appear to have the local infrastructure needed to deliver. So what could go wrong? What could stop the best-laid plans from producing the sort of high-quality inclusive facility everybody wants?

How about health and safety requirements? An over-zealous minority of parents, backed by aggressive marketing from certain legal organisations, has made what ought to be essential safeguards to the welfare of users, young and old – and nothing more – the scourge of physical activity. If a child grazes a knee or twists an ankle, there is a risk that litigation will follow.

If councils are too risk-averse, there is a real possibility that the new facilities will not produce the intended high- quality experience. Douglas Belfield, director at playground designer Record RSS, fears that an over-zealous focus on health and safety by nervous councils could misdirect the way the money might be spent. In research conducted by YouGov on behalf of Record RSS, 83 per cent of almost 2,000 adults questioned agreed that today’s children miss out on play – without adult supervision – because of concern for their safety. Seventy-one per cent of the sample wanted children to be challenged and motivated through unsupervised play.

He says: ‘Playgrounds by their very nature need to be challenging and risky in order to attract children to go back again and keep trying. It is fine for kids to fall over. We develop from learning by our mistakes and pushing our boundaries and this has to start in childhood.’

Rachel Scott agrees that playgrounds are about action and that without an element of risk they become lifeless, dull and boring. David Ball, professor of risk management at Middlesex University, adds: ‘What is often overlooked are the health benefits, physical and emotional, of play and the valuable experience of making one’s own choices. Children and young people need these opportunities to learn about life and its dangers, otherwise they will find it all the more difficult to survive the challenges of adulthood.’

What happens if local councils take the risk?
Even government is getting in on the act. Andy Burnham says: ‘Of course it is important that children are kept safe but this does not mean we have to wrap them up in cotton wool. I want to get children outside where they can enjoy the many possibilities that play offers rather than spending all day in front of the computer.’ All very well and all very true; but if they are to feel a bit more secure in taking the odd risk when designing their play areas, local authorities might need an answer to a different question – whose head will be on the chopping block should something go wrong?

Crispin Andrews is a freelance journalist