Children of all abilities want playgrounds that are welcoming, safe, aesthetically pleasing, and that provide opportunities for fun

Morgenthaler, T. ., Schulze, C. ., Pentland, D. ., & Lynch, H. . (2023). Environmental qualities that enhance outdoor play in community playgrounds from the perspective of children with and without disabilities: A scoping review. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 20.

The aim of this literature review was to identify what is known about how environmental qualities of public playgrounds contribute to children’s experience of outdoor play. The focus was on what children with and without disabilities wanted in community playgrounds.

A systematic search of peer-reviewed studies was conducted in seven databases reflecting a broad range of professional disciplines, including health, education, social sciences, and architecture. Fifty-one studies were identified and reviewed, with a total of 212 playgrounds being represented. The playgrounds were located in community areas such as parks and schools. The publication dates of the included studies ranged from 1974 to 2022. Twenty-five of the studies were conducted in Europe, 11 in Australia and New Zealand, 8 in Asia and 7 in North America. There were no studies from Africa or South America. Most of the studies used multiple qualitative data collection methods including semi-structured interviews, focus groups, walk-along talks, and observation. The combined studies represented a total of 3676 children, with most of them being between the ages of 3 and 12. Only ten studies (about 4%) included children with disabilities.

Findings showed that children with and without disabilities are knowledgeable users of playgrounds and are aware of environmental qualities that contribute to enhancing their play experiences. While some of their preferences for certain environmental qualities relate only to the physical environment or only to the social environment, their preferences usually related to the combined social and physical environment. A desire for fun was reflected in all the other identified themes and pertained to both physical and social environment. The children’s preferences included opportunities for intense motor and sensory play, suitable challenges, choices, and “moments to unfold their own play.” Children valued opportunities to play alone, in small to big groups of peers and friends, and to play with adults and animals. Children – especially children with disabilities – wanted to feel welcome and safe in playgrounds. They wanted a welcoming atmosphere created by accessible and usable playground design. They also wanted a playground that afforded play opportunities with others. Children with disabilities expressed concerns and sadness when there were no suitable challenges for them compared with what was available to other children without disabilities. Studies exploring the outdoor play of children with disabilities focused only on the built environment (such as play equipment or surfacing). Studies exploring the outdoor play of children without disabilities had a broader focus, with much greater attention to the natural environment as well as other built structures (such as benches, fences, stairs).

This review highlights the need for more research into “how children with disabilities use natural environments for play in playgrounds . . . and how playgrounds can provide more nature access for all children, regardless of ability.”

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