Children with additional needs struggle to find a place to play

17 Mar 2022 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 17 Mar 2022

All children should be able to use play parks. However, new research shows that many children with additional needs still struggle to find places that allow them to pursue this fundamental part of childhood.


Play is serious business.

The word has frivolous, trivial associations - but play is vital to the human experience. It is part of who we are. It helps make us who we are.

For children, in particular, play is extremely important. It is educational, it helps with social and emotional growth, it improves understanding of the world around us and it is important for physical health and development.

This is true for all children. However, for some finding a place to play is more difficult than for others.

New research has found that 57% of families of children with a physical, learning, sensory, medical, undiagnosed or complex need are unable to play in play parks as often as they would like, while 56% say they have to travel long distances just to be able to access a play park that met their family’s play needs.

Let me play – Inclusive play park study is a report published earlier this month by PlayBoard NI and the Mae Murray Foundation. The paper also found that:

  • 60% viewed play parks as important spaces for their child/children which they would like to attend more regularly.
  • 40% rated the play experience on offer within fixed play parks as being poor or very poor; 20% rated the play experience as average with 40% rating it as being good or very good.
  • 66% identified a lack of opportunity to actively take part in play as the key barrier faced.

Northern Ireland has better play parks than it did 20 or 30 years ago. In terms of quality, modern play parks are leagues ahead of the two rusty swings and dirty slide that used to be the standard.

Today’s parks are also broadly more inclusive than they used to be. It is good that a lot of families are able to find parks that cater for them well.

However, many families are not well catered for – whether that is due to accessibility, what the park actually offers, or both.


Per the report: “Not only is the urge to play natural and intrinsic, it represents an essential element of all children’s lives contributing to the enjoyment of childhood and impacting upon social, emotional, intellectual and physical development.”

Every child should be able to play. For children with additional needs, parks are perhaps more important than they are for children who do not face such barriers.

PlayBoard NI’s research involved one-to-one sessions with families, focus groups, and a broader survey. Respondents came from all over NI. The challenges they identified break down into six themes:

Getting to the play park – the infrastructure surrounding the play park is important such as appropriately placed drop-kerbs and accessible public transport. It doesn’t matter how good a play park is if a child or family cannot feasibly get there.

Play park site facilities – on-site facilities don’t always cater for additional needs. 49% of families say that in order to use a play park they required a disability-friendly toilet, while 30% highlighted problems with insufficient or inappropriate parking.

Access to play – families say there has been improvements and innovations in outdoor fixed play parks in recent years but these “have not been sufficient to provide high quality participative play opportunities for all.” The research found that more attention to detail could make a big difference – such as with more space to move around parks, graduated ramps for wheelchair access, and more grab bars and guard rails – while some parks still lack enough (or any) accessible swings and slides. Different ages and abilities also need to be taken into account.

Participation in play – again, while things are better than they used to be, more options to provide children the chance to try a range of different (and challenging) ways to play is required.

Communication – effective communication regarding play parks is paramount including what play opportunities and facilities are available, accessible signage (such as easy-read text; braille; raised 3D tactile maps; picture form and audio), and opening and closing times.

Attitudes – many respondents reported encountering poor attitudes from other users whilst using play parks. This issue goes beyond park provision itself, with the report saying: At a societal level, it is clear that some struggle to understand the importance of all abilities mixing and playing together from a young age.”


PlayBoard NI and the Mae Murray Foundation made several suggestions about how play parks could better cater for children with additional needs, including:

  • Play park providers to engage with families with lived experience and fully involve them throughout the play park design process to co-produce workable solutions.
  • Play park providers to make use of the Let me play study findings to influence play park design.
  • Leading play organisations and other interested parties agree universal terminology and definitions in relation to fixed play parks and spaces within the UK.
  • Development of guidance to support play park and play space providers to build inclusive play parks and spaces.

Alan Herron, PlayBoard’s Director of Service Delivery and Development said: “Let me play clearly highlights that despite the creation of new fixed play spaces, families who have a child with a physical, learning, sensory, medical, undiagnosed or complex need continue to be excluded from play parks in Northern Ireland. Play park provision must evolve for people of all abilities to enjoy their right to play.”

Alix Crawford, Chair of the Mae Murray Foundation Chairperson, said: “No one should be excluded from taking part, having fun and making friends, in outdoor play parks. It is shocking that families today are still facing the exclusion my own family faced some 20 years ago and we simply must address these man-made barriers.

“I would like to thank and pay tribute to the 500 families who contributed to the study, sharing their lived-experiences. When the people experiencing the barriers first-hand are involved, solutions can be found. I believe their contributions are the catalyst for change and look forward to building on the study findings with further work to implement true inclusion in our outdoor play spaces in Northern Ireland.”

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