Inclusive Playgrounds: "We must respect being different"

No matter what a person looks like, what language they speak, and whether they are disabled or not – everyone can go everywhere and take part in everything. That is what inclusion is all about. But what does it mean for playground designers? And what does an inclusive playground look like? Bettina Schilling spoke to Julian Richter senior from Richter Spielgeräte about this.

Mr Richter, inclusion is a human right and should allow everyone to participate in everything. This is also becoming an increasingly important aspect in playground design. How do you approach the topic of inclusion?
Julian Richter: For me, inclusion is, in the broadest and most positive sense of the word, togetherness. We must cultivate respect for one another. We must not look at otherness in a pejorative and excluding way, but respect it – regardless of what otherness comprises, whether it’s physical, mental or emotional, ethnic or age differences.
The idea of inclusion is so appealing because it is an attempt to reunite the deficiencies that are simply accepted from the effect of specialisation into a joint effort that includes everyone. The common ground takes on a different meaning if the togetherness is true interaction and not just parallel action.

What are the actual consequences of this for your work as a playground designer?
Basically, it is quite simple: we have to create an atmosphere of well-being. If we succeed in creating such a space, then (almost) everyone will feel comfortable there, whether tall, short, fat, thin, old, young, with or without a disability. Creating a playground with a good atmosphere is our highest goal during the planning process.

So a playground with a wheelchair carousel does not necessarily make an inclusive playground?
Well, some clients are already satisfied when they are offered something for wheelchair users. The playground is then barrier-free and the idea of inclusion has been dealt with. It is sad that wheelchair users are often used as an alibi. After all, the percentage of wheelchair users is small compared to people with other disabilities. Of course, wheelchair users should be able to get wherever they want to go. But it would be wrong to only focus on the wheelchair user. We should also think about other types of disabilities.

Is there the right playground equipment for every disability?
No. That's why providing special equipment, meaning barrier-free playground equipment, is rather secondary for us. We only use the individual functions of turning, rocking, sliding and climbing as small tools that contribute to a pleasant and suitable atmosphere. The aim of an inclusive playground is to offer all people with different abilities, skills and limitations a space in which they can act in a way that is self-determining in accordance with their own possibilities. In addition, people always use the same playground equipment in their own way and can thus use it to varying degrees. It would therefore be wrong to focus just on playground equipment.

Can you describe an example of this?
While one child may have plenty of fun in a wheelchair carousel, the rotation can have a very negative effect on a child with a mental disability. Or let’s take the wheelchair-accessible ramp as part of a piece of playground equipment. A child in a wheelchair who is mentally and physically disabled on several levels will not be able to drive up this ramp on their own. Blind people would need additional orientation aids while children with two healthy legs might miss the challenge when walking up the ramp. As you can see, the question of inclusion cannot be determined on the basis of individual play equipment.

Would you say that there is no such thing as a perfect inclusive playground with the perfect equipment?
From my point of view the answer is: no, there isn’t. I think the goal of offering everything for everyone on a playground cannot be achieved. For some people, the value of a playground can consist of passively taking part in what's going on. Namely when the disabilities are so severe that they would not be able to actively participate. In their case, it is wonderful if they can just be there and feel comfortable. Nevertheless, the approach must be: in principle, no one is excluded. We take into account the idea of inclusion in every step of our planning. If, the idea of “respecting otherness” I mentioned at the beginning is placed above all else, then bigger solutions that include more people will be realised.

What are the "bigger solutions"?
Basically, a playground should be built with as few barriers as possible to give access to as many different people as possible. If a playground is built suitable for prams, it is in principle already wheelchair accessible. But thinking further ahead, we should ask ourselves the question, what use is a swing in a public playground that is only suitable for wheelchair users? Let’s make the swing seat bigger, so that adults can also fit in and more people can swing.
So when it comes to public playgrounds, the focus must always be on togetherness, and that is what we always keep in mind when planning.

Julian Richter senior was interviewed by Bettina Schilling (