The research study summarised in this article sought to develop an understanding of the issues that affect the inclusion of disabled children in play in the playgrounds of six primary schools in Yorkshire (1).

The research was carried out in 2003 by a multi-disciplinary research team. Two classes of children in six schools in Yorkshire were involved in the project. Children’s opinions were listened to in small group discussions and through mapping exercises. Observations of play were undertaken in the playgrounds and relevant staff were also interviewed.

Barriers to inclusion in playgrounds

Barriers to inclusion in play for the focus children (the disabled children in the study) were identified as follows:

Organisational barriers

– lack of afternoon playtime in some schools – reduced play opportunities at breaktimes for some children because of their individual routines – many of which were historic in origin and had not been reviewed – the training of staff with responsibilities for disabled children was, in the main, related to issues such as health and safety

– finding the balance between taking risks and maintaining health and safety was not easy for all staff responsible for focus children; this sometimes resulted in limited play opportunities for the focus children.

Social barriers

– Focus children, who spent a great deal more time than many of the non-disabled children with staff, were restricted in their opportunity to play with their peers (although they also sometimes displayed more confidence in their dealings with adults). – Adults who spent time associated with one or two children (for example, personal support assistants (PSAs) for the focus children) could become a magnet for other children, thus influencing other social interactions within the playground.

– The organisational issue of balancing risk with maintaining health and safety was sometimes compounded by the attitudes of the staff member who might be with a focus child at any one time. Thus, sometimes, children wanted to do things but were prevented from doing so, or thought not capable of the activity, by a member of staff.

Physical barriers

– Some physical barriers existed to the inclusion of disabled children in play in the primary school playgrounds investigated. These related to access to playgrounds and the fixed equipment within them, the design of the playground and the fixed equipment and details in the playing surfaces and access between them.

Examples of good practice

The research identified good practice in some organisational and social aspects of the schools visited. However, little good practice, except for the provision of ramps, was found in respect to physical playground issues.

Organisational good practice

– the retention of morning and afternoon playtimes in one school – mixed age groups sharing playtimes in another school – in some schools, routines for individual focus children were identified that did not impinge on playtimes or lunchtimes – staff had been on relevant courses in one school: their contribution and value was acknowledged and they were retained by the school – some of the PSAs benefited from experience over a period of years, and learnt more about the child they were responsible for by talking to parents and professionals, such as physiotherapists – to help the transition of disabled children from one school to another, some teachers discussed the situation with their class before the new child arrived

– some teachers used PE lessons as an opportunity for focus children to be included in activities, develop skills and transfered these skills to the playground.

Social good practice

– Two of the PSAs would take their focus child to the playground during classtime if they felt that the child would benefit from extra play outdoors.

– School staff were able to help a focus child develop confidence to such an extent that they were enabled to go into the playground by themselves after a period of time.

Suggestions for the future

The researchers make six suggestions for improving the inclusion of disabled children in play in primary school playgrounds: 1. School routine: the retention – or reintroduction – of afternoon playtimes; the possible introduction of playtimes, allowing mixed age groups to play together. 2. Individual routine: the inclusion of free-time – playtimes and lunchtimes – in disabled children’s reviews. 3. Staff experience: the acknowledgement and reward of good quality work by staff responsible for disabled children. 4. Training: a variety of training for staff relevant to their situation and responsibilities. Once staff have been trained, they should be encouraged to stay with a school. It might be appropriate for trained and experienced staff to remain responsible for a particular disabled child over a period of time in order to help develop the child’s confidence. 5. The role of staff in the playground: staff should be helped to understand the constructive and supporting, but not dominating, role that they can take in the playground with respect to disabled children’s play. This could be achieved by awareness training and a mentoring system. 6. Power relations: decisions about disabled children, their routines, desires and aspirations relating to outdoor play should be based upon discussions with the child, their parents or guardians, school staff and, if appropriate, external support staff.

7. Audit: an audit should be undertaken in all primary school playgrounds. Such audits should include access to playgrounds and the fixed equipment within them, the design of the playground and the fixed equipment and details in the playing surfaces and access between them. Children’s involvement in such audits makes them more meaningful. Any such audit should be accompanied by a fully resourced action plan detailing the priorities, responsibilities and costs.


1. The full report, Inclusion of Disabled Children in Primary School Playgrounds by Helen Woolley with Marc Armitage, Julia Bishop, Mavis Curtis and Jane Ginsborg is published for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation by the National Children’s Bureau (ISBN 1 904787 66 5)