James Wilkinson on designing outdoor spaces for SEND environments.

So much more than a chance to have fun outside, the right outdoor spaces and playground equipment can support learning, help to develop the senses, inspire creativity and promote social skills. Designing a playground is an enjoyable task but it can be quite daunting—those who use the equipment can be the biggest fans or the harshest critics, but the Goldilocks dilemma of getting it just right isn’t just about earning the approval of playground visitors. In a SEND environment it’s about understanding the way users respond to their surroundings and activities, which in turn will equip them with the skills to manage the physical and emotional demands of daily life. Getting your playground design just right can support the recognition of, and provision for, special educational needs and disabilities.

Partnering with a reliable and experienced outdoor transformation specialist, registered with the likes of the Association of Play Industries (API), is one of the first steps to consider. A good partner will consider your budget and identify ways to deliver maximum play value that appeals to a wide range of demographics, while meeting the playground brief.  What age ranges does the playground need to appeal to? What accessibility adjustments or arrangements are needed? Are sensory responses being considered? Just as Goldilocks was able to identify which porridge was just right, playground users and visitors will be looking for all the necessary ingredients to feel safe, comfortable and connected to their outdoor space.

Choosing the right equipment is only part of the answer. In terms of accessibility, pathways and routes to the equipment should have appropriate surfacing, be free of obstacles and offer sufficient space for wheelchair users to navigate. Inclusive equipment choices should consider access for carers or parents, whether it be the provision of seating or enabling equipment such as a buddy swing or trampoline built to accommodate multiple users as well as their wheelchairs and buggies. Addressing the needs of users with impairments, such as vision impairments, may call for additional lighting or signage. Meanwhile the materials and construction methods used to create a playground, as well as environmental factors, could have an effect on the experiences enjoyed by those with sensory processing disorders.

In addition to these considerations, inclusive playgrounds in SEND settings should deliver the same developmental benefits as any other playground or outdoor space as well as being places to form lasting friendships and memories. If a playground is being accessed by different age groups, it is important to discuss how challenging and interesting the equipment needs to be. Is it appropriate for all the intended users? A good delivery partner will be able to offer and explore different products as well as factor in various design elements such as creative or ‘quiet’ zones to complement the thrills and spills of traditional playground equipment like see-saws, roundabouts and slides.

Playgrounds and recreation areas are where users grow their social skills, from interacting with others to learning how to share and take turns, respect personal space and work as part of a team. Equipment which supports imaginative play can facilitate this type of communication as well as active play equipment like play towers and climbing frames.”

Getting it just right supports mental and emotional wellbeing as well as physical health. Integrating areas for socialising could include an outdoor gym or outdoor dining tables. Sensory gardens should allow users to explore their senses without feeling overwhelmed, while planting areas can be places of peace and tranquillity while introducing visitors to different scents, sounds and movements. With the right support, school grounds can be developed into assets that are as important as the school building—and that goes for all schools whatever their level of SEND provision.

James Wilkinson
Author: James Wilkinson

James Wilkinson
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