Is play accessible enough?

November 16, 2017 Published by

When thinking about the accessibility of play, it is important that play value isn’t lost; simply being able to do something is not what makes it enjoyable. There were some wonderful examples of this in the recent BBC Children in Need special of ‘The Big Life Fix’ – including a couple of clever robots that give eight-year-old Ayala (who has cerebral palsy) the chance to play with her twin sister Caira.

When planning playtime, focusing on what a child can do rather than what they cannot, means they can get the most out of activities that are both fun and accessible. The true nature of play – something that is freely chosen, personally directed and intrinsically motivated – can be more challenging when a child has Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) that affect their independence (such as mobility impairment). But while this means children might need a little extra support, they also need the freedom to decide what to play and how to go about it.


Play at home

Play at home is largely determined by the opportunities and tools provided for by a child’s parents or carers.  There are companies that specialise in producing toys that meet the needs of children who cannot access mainstream products, but these can be expensive. While there are some good ideas out there, children with SEND don’t have to have ‘special’ toys – with a little research play opportunities that don’t cost a fortune can be made accessible for children with varying needs. 

For example, if a child has a visual or hearing impairment, think about activities that can be enjoyed without these senses. In the BBC show mentioned above, the designers came up with a playground surface that makes different sounds when tiles are stepped on, which eight-year-old Josh (who was born blind) can navigate to by feeling the textures of the different tiles. At home, you could set up opportunities to experiment with textures/smells/tastes; it is also important to be aware of safety-proofing play areas so that children have that opportunity to explore independently.

Take a look at our articles for advice on choosing toys and games for children with visual impairment and mobility impairment, or the National Deaf Children’s Society for children with a hearing impairment. Of course, every child is different and you know your child best, so adjust the activities accordingly and experiment with as many ideas as possible to discover what your child most enjoys!


A Trip to the Park



Going out to play is a great chance to foster curiosity, teach your child about the world around them and develop gross motor skills; whether you are exploring the garden or taking a trip to the park, the great outdoors really is a playground for your child! It is much easier to control play opportunities at home and ensure that it is accessible to the specific needs of your child but when you go out, you are relying on the opportunities provided by others.

In 2004 the Disability Discrimination Act came into full force; it stated that all play areas must be accessible with equal opportunities for all children.  However, it seems that the majority of council-run play areas only have a nod towards those with SEND.  While we understand that it is difficult to design a play area that is 100% suitable for children with disabilities, we also recognise the importance of allowing children (regardless of need) to play together. Playgrounds are a wonderful place for children to develop social skills, confidence and turn-taking alongside motor skills (and of course, it keeps them fit and healthy too) – so it’s vital that children with SEND don’t miss out on these opportunities.

Although there is much more to be done to make playgrounds more accessible, there are a few features you can look out for that are good for exploring in a physical and sensory manner:

  • Spinning and moving provides good levels of sensory and motor stimulation; it can develop body control and synchronise movements.
  • Tactile features provide opportunities for children to immerse their whole body in the play experience – playing in the sand, rolling down a hill or looking in mirrors all provide sensory stimulation. 
  • Music is a universal medium of communication, enjoyment, relaxation and brain development and stimulates parts of the brain related to reading, maths and emotional development.

But you don’t have to go to a playground – a walk in the woods or a trip to the river/seaside are excellent places for a bit of sensory exploration or active play.


Days Out

Sadly it isn’t just council run places that don’t seem to take in the differing needs of children.  Soft play centres rarely have adequate provisions and neither do other venues (such as zoos and farms).  But they are trying – a quick look at The Rough Guide to Accessible Britain reveals that many places are changing their facilities: disabled parking, no steps, fast passes, even paths, hearing loops and accessible toilets.  But you need to do your research, as there are still lots of places that don’t take differing needs into account.


So is play accessible to all? 



Children play for one reason – FUN! But it can also be a fantastic equalizer between children of different ages and abilities if the opportunities are there. The council and children’s activity companies could certainly be doing more to make play accessible; at least for the time being, parents and carers don’t have the comfort of being able to just go anywhere and assume their child’s needs will be met. But awareness is improving and a little bit of research will help you provide play activities that are both fun and accessible for your child.


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This post was written by Claire Gillies

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