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The Walrus Talks Inclusion: Tatiana Zakharova on the Magic of Play

Accessibility and inclusivity truly are topics we think about when designing every single playground project. Though we certainly don’t have all the answers, we do have some ideas to share.

First, I want to talk about the concept of “universal design.” Whether it is defined as including everyone or the widest possible audience, universal design is a lovely phrase but an impossible concept. The problem with its implementation, is that it is reductionist – it takes this big messy idea of “inclusivity” and cuts it into small, graspable portions like “simple to use”, “intuitive”, or “requiring low physical effort.”

But our abilities and desires are uniquely situated in our different realities, so I cannot believe in a positivist term like “universal” when that implies that having one single approach to physical reality can meet all needs.  This is NOT a statement of defeat. Instead, I think the entire process of good design is a process of working on inclusion. Inclusion is a living concept – and design has a similar iterative quality.

The design of playgrounds always starts with meeting accessibility standards because that is the law but, in every project, we also consider different ways to play, and how that impacts inclusivity. Let me focus on just two stories from our practice.

Theories of gender predict different play behaviours between boys and girls. Research shows that overall, girls tend to be less physically active and prefer different activities: creating, imaginative play, climbing, sitting.  So what can be done to ensure there are different play opportunities to appeal to more children?

One example of this thinking is found at our playground at Riverside Park in Guelph. I spent some time at this playground to observe play in action, to make sure that the spaces we design do what they are supposed to do!  I saw spaces for observing, like the children on the top of this fish sculpture; and spaces for imaginative play like inside the fish where children were gathering natural materials like hunter-gatherers. I witnessed opportunities for climbing – some very easy and some quite challenging, like on this water strider piece.

With this water strider, I want to pick on the concept of “low physical effort” that’s included in universal design principals. We cannot design with just that idea in mind, because we would not be able to get older kids, or kids who are looking for a challenge to come outside to play. Play spaces must support or offer a full range of effort requirements: from low to high.

When I was at Riverside, I saw that teenagers are not embarrassed to climb – it is great to see them considered in play and be thrilled.  One inclusivity tool that we at Earthscape use in our work is variety. Research from Sweden shows that a playground with diverse play spaces can facilitate various ways of processing gender identity. We see that playscapes which have variety of access and egress options, not just ramps, and that have low and high challenges, and opportunities for various types play are, not surprisingly, attractive to a wider variety of kids.

This photo is from a playground we designed and built at a children’s hospital in Hamilton. It includes several play huts, which you don’t see on playgrounds very much these days. Children with autism-spectrum disorders use these to self-regulate during play, when they perhaps need a moment away from others.

It is the variety, the combination of open, semi-open and enclosed spaces that creates a more inclusive overall space. This playground may be criticized as not being inclusive enough. It is a fair criticism – it does not have ramps or movable equipment that can be so great for kids with limited mobility. This is where “variety” meets reality. Playgrounds are not only built on set budgets, they are also strictly regulated which dictates a lot of the site layout and the distances between play pieces. This means that on a smaller site, some things we get and others we have to give.

I am happy to report that in recent years, we have seen a great shift towards inclusivity from all play manufacturers. More equipment is being built with inclusivity in mind and designs are considering abilities outside mobility – focusing on different senses: sight, hearing, touch and motion.

This is a photo from a playscape in Oklahoma City we designed and built. As designers, we know so much more NOW about what makes a place more inclusive. We now think about ways to create opportunities for interaction and interdependence between peers of different abilities.

Ensuring that spaces are flexible is paramount. A log jam like this one can be used for kinetic play; where bodies move under, over and along logs, but these can also be spaces where kids can have conversations in the environments that are exclusively for them.

At the start of my presentation, I talked about the interrelationship between good design and inclusive design. I want to leave you with a quote that is attributed to Murri theorist and artist Lilla Watson:

“If you have come to help me, then you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together” (from Alexis Shotwell’s Against Purity).

Let us work together on the magic of play.