How to create an inclusive school playground

Is your school’s playground truly inclusive? We look at six key tenets for effective, inclusive playground areas, and offer some ideas, tips and guidance

CREDIT: This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared on Headteacher Update

When planning a school playground it is vital to consider everything we can do to create the best possible play experience for our children. This doesn’t necessarily mean expensive equipment, but could mean space for children to run around, quiet spaces, or inclusive areas catering for all children, regardless of physical ability.

Mark Grace, a specialist in outdoor play environments, recommends six main criteria for investigation, which we explore below, including some tips and ideas.


When children play, alongside the physical experience, their senses are also stimulated. There are five main areas in which playgrounds might stimulate our pupils’ senses:

  • Hearing: talking tubes and outdoor musical instruments can help pupils to explore noises, pitches and tones in sound, helping to develop their auditory processing (how our brains interpret, recognise and differentiate between different sounds).
  • Proprioceptive: this relates to body position and movement – climbing, bending, pulling, straightening – and the effects of this on the joints, muscles and bone. Trampolines, climbing frames and nets can support physical development, including balance and co-ordination.
  • Touch: tactile equipment and surfaces help to develop motor skills and activate neural receptors, usually in the skin. Equipment and surfaces should contain a variety of textures including rough, smooth, soft and hard.
  • Vestibular development: this includes helping children to explore their bodies in relation to gravity and developing their sense of balance – helped by playing on swings or spinners.
  • Visual: as well as adding vibrancy, using colours and tones, as well as equipment like telescopes, can help children with sight impairments to fully enjoy the play area.

Cosy places and quiet spaces

Children often use different styles of play, especially in the early years. While some enjoy ball games, and can take up a lot of space with boisterous activities and running around, other children are more likely to be found chatting in groups or playing games that are calmer and requiring less space.

So, as well as needing room to run around, pupils may also require somewhere quiet to de-stress and relax. This is particularly true for those on the autistic spectrum, who can experience sensory overload and may need a spot to retreat to where they can feel calm. As such, plan for secluded areas that remain within sight of the main play area. These spaces can be enclosed – a bubble, cocoon or tunnel – yet easily accessible.


It is important that there is at least one area, or piece of equipment, that encourages co-operative and collaborative play. Playgrounds should engage children of all abilities and ages with equipment that provides different levels of challenge, offering a choice of activity to suit all needs and interests. It is important to consider varying levels of ability and height.

Placing different types of equipment close together allows children with physical challenges to play alongside those who are more able, without those differences being obvious; this is particularly important if there is a favourite bit of the playground where everyone gathers.


An inclusive playground needs to be easily accessible, with wide spaces to allow safe and independent movement and opportunities for children to mix freely. This requires consideration of the surfaces being used, whether there are steps and ramps to platforms of different heights, and flush transitions to ease movement from one surface to another. Depending on the equipment, soft surfaces might be needed to reduce the risk of injury from falls, as well as to create perimeters and boundaries.

Social interaction

For many children the playground may be the only place where they interact with others and can really develop their social skills. They may find making friends difficult, so it is important to include at least one piece of equipment that encourages co-operative play, where they can mix easily and get involved in a game.

However, there will also be children who play in different ways and have other needs. For example, the child who wants to play and explore alone may benefit from play equipment that functions with just one user. Other children may be onlookers who prefer to watch others playing, or chat without joining in, while some might play different games to their peers but remain next to them (known as parallel play).

Associate play, meanwhile, takes place when a child plays independently of other children but mimics what they are doing – taking turns and chatting to themselves; this is usually seen in sand and water play and with pretend play. Equipment that requires more than one person, such as a seesaw, gives children opportunities to play together and promotes social interactions but it is important to provide places where children can just sit, watch and learn through observation.


If a playground is to be inclusive and accessible to all it must have a good layout. This will allow users and visitors to move through safely, freely and independently.

Surfaces have various purposes, including play, reduction of potential injury, access, and aesthetics. They should meet the playground equipment standard (EN1176) and surfaces standard (EN1177).

Colour schemes can help navigation of areas and clarify what is supposed to happen in particular zones. “In larger spaces, it makes sense to divide the play space into areas, to separate boisterous play from quiet time for example, and we can group similar types of play equipment in each zone,” Mark explains.

The layout should also consider perimeters and boundaries, and whether the play area needs to be contained or open. Visibility is an important consideration as supervising adults should be able to see where children are. See-through equipment can help us to keep an eye on more than one child at a time.

Playing is one of the most important ways that children stay active, learn, make friends and socialise. It is also fundamental to children’s development and wellbeing. Therefore, inclusive play spaces should provide opportunities for everyone to play together, they should be accessible, engage children of all ages and abilities, and encourage them to interact with each other.

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