If you’ve visited some of the latest and greatest Seattle-area playgrounds recently, you’ve probably noticed the move toward more accessible play areas. In the decade since the Americans with Disablities Act (ADA) Standards for Accessible Design went into effect, communities have made leaps and bounds toward making play spaces more welcoming and inclusive for kids of all abilities.
We spoke to families, playground manufacturers and landscape architects to understand what makes a truly inclusive playground. Read on for our Q&A followed by a roundup of 10 Puget Sound-area all-abilities playgrounds to add to your play list.
Inclusive playgrounds Q&A
What are some features that make an playground inclusive?
Surfacing: Architects need to consider the surfaces kids will use to access play equipment. Engineered Wood Fiber (EWF) technically complies with ADA requirements, but many wheelchair users find it difficult to navigate and generally prefer “unitary surfacing” (such as poured rubber or turf).
Disability diversity: No playground would be truly inclusive without recognizing and providing for different types of disabilities. Cozy sheltered places can provide autistic kids a break from noisy activity. Sensory panels near ground level provide audio and visual feedback that engages disabled kids and their non-disabled friends. Special playground turf with anti-static properties helps prevent issues with cochlear implants.
Shana Schasteen, a parent of a child with Down syndrome, shared her wish that parks include “fencing and barriers so that parks are safer for toddlers and kids with disabilities that impact impulse control.”
Play zones: Providing opportunities for kids of different abilities to interact is key for inclusivity. Grouping similar play elements helps foster connection on the playground. In practice, this might look like swing banks that center accessible swings with belt and toddler swings so kids of all ages and abilities can swing together.
The coolest thing: Whether it’s a ramp or belt (like the Netplex at Renton’s Gene Coulon Memorial Beach Park) to the top of a climber or an accessible teeter-totter, Clayton Beaudoin, a landscape architect from Site Workshop, says, “An important criteria for genuine accessibility is that the feature element – whatever is widely held as the coolest feature of the park – be fully usable by everyone.”
Sounds great. So why aren’t all playgrounds designed this way?
To put it simply: budget. Unitary surfacing like poured rubber and turf can cost up to five times as much as wood fiber, while a basket-style swing’s price is about twice as much as a couple of standard belt swings.
Pamela Alspaugh, a senior landscape architect for Seattle Parks and Recreation, notes that, “Because there is a large difference in cost between the three surfacing types, for newly renovated play areas when budgets allow, we prioritize the more costly surfacing at the locations with the highest use, such as community centers.”
For cities looking to maximize the impact of a limited budget, Jill Moore, an inclusive play specialist for Landscape Structures (a playground equipment manufacturer), has a couple of recommendations. “[Spend] the money on the equipment and surfacing for something like a We-Go-Round [a ground level spinner accessible to wheelchair users]. This gives the space something that everyone can use in an equitable way… Another way I’ve seen communities answer for budget is to mix the wood fiber and the rubber surfacing. This looks like ensuring there’s surfacing to swings or anything that requires a transfer.”
What are the top features that families of disabled kids value in a playground?
Easy access to play equipment is critical. Rowan, who has spina bifida and uses a wheelchair (his mom, Nicole, runs their @accessibleseattle Instagram account), points out that while ramps are nice, they aren’t as fun if there’s nothing to do at the summit, or if you have to leave your wheelchair at the top to go down a slide. That’s why unitary surfacing and swings came up again and again when families chimed in about their top features.
Kids with low muscle tone (common with spina bifida or cerebral palsy) may not be able to sit or stand independently, so features that support their bodies are key. Molded bucket seats with harnesses, basket swings and flat merry-go-rounds allow kids with different body shapes and abilities to lean back and swing or spin freely.
How can families work for more inclusivity in play spaces?
Educated advocacy and community involvement are key.
Simply asking for an accessible feature isn’t enough, Moore says. On the other hand, she adds, “I’ve seen a community who educated themselves on why they wanted an inclusive spinner, how not having one was a gap in their community, what it was going to do and who it was going to provide for. Then when they asked their parks department, it became a collaborative experience … they were ultimately successful.”
During park planning phases, families can also participate in outreach events, which are typically posted to parks department websites and social media accounts. This can look like taking a survey or attending a meeting (virtual or in person). Erica Schmitz, parks planning and natural resources director for the city of Renton, tells families, “It always helps to know there is a demand for more inclusive playgrounds, as that can help us to secure grant funding.” Alsbaugh even recommends bringing kids along to community meetings to model civic engagement and encourage future advocates for inclusivity.
9 playgrounds to visit now (and one to watch for)
While there are many play elements that make a space accessible, all of the playgrounds on this list include at least some unitary surfacing and an accessible swing since families resoundingly told us they valued those features.
Location: 305 Harrison St. in Seattle (Seattle Center)
Surfacing: Turf and poured rubber
Inclusive features: This artist-designed space near MoPOP features molded bucket and basket swings, a wheelchair-accessible spinner, turf hills for strength challenges and multiple music sensory elements.
Bonus tip: Extend the outing with a trip on the Monorail or catch a play at Seattle Children’s Theatre (they offer shows with ASL interpretation, sensory-friendly days and audio description).
Location: 8347 14th Ave. N.W. in Seattle (Crown Hill)
Inclusive features: This is more of a neighborhood park, but kids need inclusive spaces that aren’t a crowded destination. Baker Park is unique in that it’s one of the few playgrounds in Seattle with turf surfacing. You’ll also find a basket swing and ground-level sensory panels to play with.
Location: 205 Park Road in Everett
Inclusive features: This playground is practically a catalog of inclusive features. Look for a We-Go-Round accessible spinner, a ramp to an accessible teeter-totter, molded bucket and basket swings, a cozy dome hiding place and a bank of musical and interactive sensory panels.
Location: 100 100th Ave. N.E., Bellevue
Surfacing: Poured rubber
Inclusive features: This is definitely a destination playground — you could spend several hours here. Highlights include molded bucket and basket swings, ramps, an accessible spinner and teeter-totter as well as engaging sensory panels.
Location: 9703 Juanita Drive N.E., Kirkland
Inclusive features: Catch lake views from the playground that includes a molded bucket and friendship swing (accommodates two children leaning back), sensory panels and musical elements, as well as obstacles that wheelchair users can navigate.
Location: 3000 N.E. 16th St. in Renton
Surfacing: Poured rubber
Inclusive features: You’ll find molded bucket and basket swings, ramps, an accessible spinner and teeter-totter and a variety of sensory panels atop brightly colored poured rubber.
Important note: This playground is open only when the adjacent school is not in session (think weekends, breaks and after 4:30 p.m. weekdays).
Location: 1500 Park Ave. in Bremerton
Inclusive features: Worth the day trip from Seattle! Evergreen Rotary Park features molded bucket and basket swings, ramps, an accessible spinner, two kinds of accessible teeter totters, a roller table and a giant bank of sensory panels (including ones with braille, sign language and communication pictures for non-verbal kids).
Location: 10301 36th St. E. in Edgewood (there is another park with the same name, so make sure to use this address)
Surfacing: Poured rubber and engineered wood fiber
Inclusive features: This newly opened space has a basket swing and poured rubber play area with hills to foster strength building. A ramp leads to sensory panels on a fun barn structure, and there are cozy spaces underneath for kids who need a break.
Location: 3873 S. 66th St. in Tacoma (park in the STAR Center lot)
Surfacing: Poured rubber
Inclusive features: The poured rubber surface needs an update, but this Tacoma play area has lots of inclusive features. You’ll find a molded bucket swing, ramp to an accessible teeter-totter, sensory panels and several slides accessible by short hills.
One to watch: Eli’s Park
Eli Reischl, who had Down syndrome, loved playing with his brothers in nature and at play spaces that brought everyone together. After he passed away, his support team and community (which included his mom, Paige Reischl, and his physical therapist, Shawn Rundell) banded together in a multiyear project to renovate Burke-Gilman Playground and preserve his legacy. We can’t wait for this special park to open (slated to open in 2024).
Location: 5201 Sand Point Way N.E. in Seattle (Bryant)
Surfacing: Not yet built, but the artistic rendering depicts turf
Inclusive features: After an immense amount of community outreach and fundraising, this $6 million park project will include tons of variety. Look for multiple types of accessible swings and spinners, intersecting pathways so friends can adapt their challenge levels to their abilities and opportunities for accessible nature play. All-gender bathrooms will include the first adult-size changing tables we’re aware of in the Seattle area.
Published May 5, 2022 and updated April 2023