In a recent survey, carried out in the context of Scotland’s Play Strategy, the concept of ‘freedom’ emerged as particularly significant value for disabled children and their families when it comes to spaces to play. Freedom has different forms for those who took part in the survey: freedom to move in and around a space, to be able to access playful features and interact with the environment; for some children to move very expansively whether rolling down hills, running wildly ‘while being safe to do so’, enjoying the sensation of moving through space that a nest swing brings or being able to ‘wander’ at their own pace; they spoke about freedom to choose rather than be confined to one ‘inclusive’ bit of equipment; and freedom from judgement about communicating, looking or behaving differently. If anything seems to encapsulate what we mean by play, it is this sense of freedom.
- "The factors for an optimum play environment are a combination of freedoms, opportunities and recognition for play" - Theresa Casey
In fact, all the themes the children and families described interacted with each other and with the idea of freedom. They spoke of needing variety, the importance of the you hide, swing, gather together, take a risk, relax?) naturally relates to freedom to choose; having equipment that is accessible enough that you can use it in a way that social experience, why independence and access matter, about the value brought through sensory qualities, and lastly about inclusive and accessible play equipment. So, for example, spaces offering plenty of variety in the types of play they support (can satisfies rather than frustrates also related to children’s sense of independence; and the social experience enhanced by being able to play with and alongside other children rather than restricted by equipment unsuited to your age or abilities or preferences. These all come back to the core ideas about play and playfulness for all children, with or without impairments.
Looking at the findings of the survey, it’s striking just how closely they mirror the factors for an optimum environment for children’s play rights set out by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in their General Comment no. 17. The Committee noted that while children have a ‘spontaneous urge to play and will seek out opportunities to do so even in the most unfavourable environments’, certain conditions need to be assured so that children can play and realise their article 31 rights more fully.
The factors for an optimum play environment are a combination of freedoms, opportunities and recognition for play. They set out a framework by which our planning and provision for play can be assessed – in other words how closely the opportunities available to children match what they value and consider important.
- Factors for an Optimum Play
The UN’s Committee on the Rights of the Child defined play’s characteristics as ‘fun, uncertainty, challenge, flexibility and non-productivity’. The ‘conditions for an optimum environment’ are a way of understanding how we can enable those characteristics of play to unfold.
The attention of adults often turns back to debating the benefits, the purpose, the meaning, the value of play rather than simply addressing how we can do all we can to create the best possible conditions for play to flourish. This reflects the tension across valuing play for its intrinsic and instrumental values; the pleasure and enjoyment play affords to children in the here and now against the benefits children may gain through playing in the longer term. For children with disabilities and their families, the intrinsic value of play can be especially eclipsed by a focus on its instrumental value. It may frequently be colonized by adults seeking to support learning and development or provide therapy and rehabilitation.
But what is preventing children with disabilities from playing in playgrounds is not simply a problem of accessibility that can be solved through good technical design alone .
There must be a focus on the provision for play encompassing the social experience as much as a physical one and encompassing the sense of freedom in its widest sense. From the field of disability rights, it is said that socio-spatial inclusion is achieved when people with disabilities are involved in the ‘politics and decision making’ to produce re-shaped space  There is much to learn from this. Not least that whilst it’s great to have disabled children in mind when designing play spaces, it’s even better to involve them in the design process.
At the International Play Association (IPA), we want to protect, create or offer more enabling environments. Imagine what could be achieved if planners and providers of spaces for play thought in terms of ‘enabling environments’; of creating the conditions for an ‘optimum environment’; of the freedoms involved in playing; and of disabled children and their families involved in the production of re-shaped space.
Theresa is an independent consultant and writer. In 2013, she drafted the Scottish Government’s Play Strategy Action Plan and took up the role of vice-chair of the implementation group. Her recent publications include: Play Types Toolkit – bringing more play into the school day (Play Scotland, 2017), Under the Same Sky a toolkit on children’s rights and the environment (IPA et al, 2016); Inclusive Play Space Guide – championing better and more inclusive play spaces in Hong Kong (Playright Child’s Play Association & UNICEF, 2016); Loose Parts Play (2016, Inspiring Scotland) as well as chapters and case studies in other publications. She is currently working on a design guide focusing on accessible and inclusive play spaces.