Designing playgrounds with special needs in mind

Play during early years is extremely important. Providing early access to play is linked to long-term benefits and better development. However, many of the playground spaces that are provided to give children the opportunity may not even consider those with special needs. We cover some tips for designing special needs playgrounds.

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What are inclusive playgrounds?

An inclusive playground is a term for playground spaces that welcome and encourage play from children of all abilities, including those with special needs. An inclusive playground encourages children of all abilities to play and learn together.

Inclusive playgrounds also allow adults of varying abilities and ages to actively interact and engage with children in their care. Such spaces provide a multi-generational space for helping boost kids learning, skills development, and socialisation (not forgetting enjoyment and imagination).

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An inclusive playground will extend beyond just providing access to children with special needs. Instead, it offers a range of play equipment for children of all abilities while still providing the right level of challenge for a variety of needs and interests (essential for learning and development).

What does special needs inclusive playgrounds look like?

In most cases, you’ll be unable to tell the difference between an inclusive playground and an ordinary playground at first glance. They will contain the same playground equipment, such as slides, swings, and climbing structures.

However, many differences make inclusive playgrounds distinctive. Such features include:

  • Wider spaces for wheelchairs and other mobility devices access
  • Sensory equipment
  • Ramps to equipment
  • Swing sets designed for wheelchair access
  • Play equipment with a centred orientation rather than outwards
  • Climbing frames adapted for those with vision impairment
  • Multiple entrances
  • Seating next to play equipment

The need for Special needs inclusive playgrounds

Inclusive playgrounds benefit children of all ages and abilities. When well-designed, they allow children to develop cognitively, socially, physically, and emotionally. The biggest reason for inclusive playgrounds is the social interaction children gain. It also helps keeps children physically active.

Inclusive playgrounds eliminate social isolation that prevents children from being able to mix and make friends. Traditional playgrounds are not suited to those with special needs, which leaves them alone or away from others. This can be damaging to a child’s confidence and development.

Ensuring every child has access to a suitable play environment also helps improve their well-being and contribute to a happy childhood. Inclusive playgrounds are ideal for encouraging active play. Through active play, children develop their problem-solving and decision-making skills.

Tips for designing Special needs inclusive playgrounds

One of the biggest barriers to the inclusive playground is that many schools don’t know how to build them. Oftentimes, organisations will try developing inclusive playgrounds that still lead to social exclusion, as the playgrounds are not suited for those with special needs.

To help you overcome this problem, we’ve picked out some tips for designing special needs playgrounds.

Understanding needs

The very first step in developing an inclusive playground is to get all parties involved to understand the needs and requirements of children with special needs. Discovering and understanding their unique requirements will enable you to create an inclusive playground suited to their needs.

The location you choose for the playground will also matter. The location you choose can affect the design and the success of the inclusive playground space. Checking the size of the space, alongside natural elements and facilities, will impact the preparation cost and safety.


The layout is a vital element of creating a successful inclusive playground and is the part where most organisations will fail. The layout can include a multitude of things, including surfacing, boundaries, signage, orientation, and safety.

Firstly, the surfacing you use in the playground will need to suitable allowing those with mobility impairments. The layout and path of the equipment should also be centred-focused with a pathway that allows children to survey the play space before entering.

Adults will also need to be easily able to find children in the event they wander off, so open spaces are a must. Signage will also help improve navigation. A perimeter will ensure the safety of children, but ensure multiple entrances are provided.


Accessibility is the biggest barrier that prevents special needs children from using a playground space. Accessibility ensures that children, parents, and carers can move throughout the playground space safely, independently and with ease.

Choosing and installing play equipment with varying heights is one way to make ensure inclusive and accessible play. Including playground equipment at varying heights makes it much more accessible for children of all ages and sizes. It is also allows children to engage and interact more easily for a tactile play experience.

Other accessibility considerations include access ramps to both the playground space and equipment if on raised levels, wide and clear routes through the playground, and that all play equipment can easily be accessed.


Inclusive playgrounds should be designed for those with sensory impairments. Children with auditory, visual, or cognitive impairments should still be able to use and enjoy a playground space. Making an inclusive playground multi-sensory can achieve this.

The use of bright colours that are not overstimulating is the perfect addition for children with auditory impairments. The use of colours can signify different zones or convey different meanings. Also, consider the use of symbols and images. The more visual the playground, the better.

There are also some considerations for children with visual impairments so they can enjoy and benefit from an inclusive play space. Visual impairment can include children who are either blind or partially sighted. This should be accounted for in the design of inclusive play spaces.

The use of braille, large print, and contrasting colours all make it easier for those with visual difficulties to still use and enjoy a playground. Designing a playground with bright colours and lighting will also help those with visual impairments to see more clearly.

Playgrounds also need to be designed for those with cognitive difficulties. Children with cognitive impairments will find it much more difficult to mentally process certain tasks compared to their peers.

Cognitive impairments can impact memory, judgement, planning, perception, concentration, or attention. Making small changes to an inclusive playground design can help. Some changes you can make include:

  • Providing a variety of activities for different difficulties or challenge levels
  • Include a wide range of activities to keep attention
  • Make use of colours and other easy associations to support memory
  • Consider safety at every point of the design

Multiple Zones

Creating different zones in an inclusive playground is a good tip for larger inclusive playgrounds. Separating quieter play areas or grouping similar play equipment can help children to choose and provide a range of different opportunities.

Providing quiet and secluded spaces for children to retreat in the event of sensory overload. These places provide somewhere for children to quickly retreat to while still being within the sightline of carers. Playhouses and other den-related equipment are ideal for allowing children to unwind.

Providing a range of social environments should also be considered. Providing play areas that encourage social interaction allows children to build their social skills and make friends. It’s also important to include solitary play areas when children want to play and discover on their own.

Plan Ahead

Not only do you need to carefully plan for the short term during the design and development of the playground, but you also need to think for the long term. This includes considering the long-term funding and upkeep of the playground.

Considering and accounting for the annual maintenance costs will help towards the future long-term success of the playground space. Setting clear goals at the start of the project will help keep focus in the future for a safe inclusive learning space that children can continue to benefit from.

Designing inclusive playgrounds can be difficult, especially when trying to consider the needs and requirements of special needs children. Following the tips above will help get you off to a good start to ensure all children can still benefit from play, learn together, and develop.

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