Autism: Playground Equipment Design Considerations

a girl wearing a tie dye shirt playing with sensory playground equipment

How can a playground make a difference for a child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD)? The playground is the perfect place to practice different skills and experiences, from learning social skills to learning to manage sensory input. Though therapy and educational programs can play a central role in helping kids with ASD learn essential skills, the playground can also contribute to their learning and can become a fun space for them to express themselves.

Play matters for everyone, including kids on the autism spectrum. Small playground design decisions can mean the difference between including or excluding those children. Learn more about playground considerations for autism so you can effectively support and celebrate all kids in your community through your playground design.

How Can Autism Impact Experiences on the Playground?

It’s crucial that playground designers and other community stakeholders understand both the commonalities and differences that kids with autism bring with them to the playground compared to their peers without ASD. First, kids with autism share many of the same desires as other kids. They want to have fun, to learn and to feel like they belong. Though the avenue for experiencing these things may differ from child to child, those base needs are universal.

That said, autistic kids do have some specific challenges and needs playground designers should be aware of to create an autism-friendly playground design. Keep in mind that we cannot paint all kids on the autism spectrum with the same brush. Each child is unique, and autism can present itself in different ways. For example, some kids may be nonverbal, while others can communicate with ease. So, what are some defining aspects of autism that most kids with this diagnosis share?

For many kids with autism, the following factors can influence their experience on the playground:

  • Challenges with social interactions: Interacting with peers may not come easily. Kids with autism can have trouble reading social cues or communicating and may feel unsure of themselves when trying to meet new people or make friends.
  • Difficulty with new experiences: Autistic kids may avoid change or experiencing anything new in favor of the familiar. This makes it more monumental when a kid with ASD tries a new activity or a new piece of equipment on the playground.
  • Sensory processing differences: high percentage of kids with ASD also exhibit sensory processing issues. This may mean they become overwhelmed by too much sensory input on the playground at times and need a peaceful place to retreat.
  • Elopement behaviors: About half of kids with autism exhibit elopement behaviors. In other words, they can wander off at times, causing parents and caregivers plenty of alarm — especially since autistic kids may be less equipped to handle themselves unsupervised.
  • Impaired gross motor skills: Another common challenge for kids with autism is motor abnormalities. This tends to include challenges with balance and coordination — functions that come into play with many playground activities.

Understanding these needs can help playground designers create playgrounds that help kids with autism challenge themselves in healthy ways while keeping the experience on the playground a positive one.

Little boy in sensory maze

How to Design a Playground or Park for Kids With Autism

While playgrounds can be beneficial places for autistic kids, not all playgrounds are created equal in this respect. Consider the following design tips if you want to design a playground that is truly inclusive. A playground designed with all kids in mind — including those with autism — can be both welcoming and challenging in appropriate ways.

1. Create an Organized and Intuitive Layout

Kids with autism should feel confident and in control on the playground rather than overwhelmed and confused. A great way to promote this positive experience is by making the playground easy to navigate. Ensure there is a logical arrangement for equipment. You may want to create areas where you group similar activities together.

You can also make wayfinding easier by including a pathway visitors can follow to move throughout the playground. A child may want to walk this path before they start playing to get their bearings and determine where they would like to play first. After playing, they may choose to head back to the path to regroup and figure out where they want to go next.

2. Fence Your Playground

Elopement is a common behavior among autistic children. This behavior can pose a safety risk and cause stress for parents. You can help make caregivers’ jobs easier and keep kids safe by adding a fence around the perimeter of your playground. Some parents may only go to a playground that is fenced in to avoid a stressful and dangerous elopement situation.

Choose an attractive fence that complements your play area’s scenery so it enhances rather than detracts from the look of the playground. You should also make sure the fence is not easily climbable.

3. Engage the Senses

Tailored for students with autism, the provision of sensory play items, such as sandboxes, swings, bubbles, and chalk, plays a pivotal role in fortifying the brain’s responsiveness to stimuli in their immediate environment. To create an inclusive sensory playground experience, consider incorporating elements like the Sensory Maze, Concerto musical instruments, play panels, and roller slides. This ensures opportunities for kids to engage their tactile, auditory, and visual sensory systems.

Additionally, provide avenues for the development of vestibular and proprioceptive systems, addressing aspects of balance and orientation. Recognizing the diverse needs of children with ASD in sensory processing, offer a range of activities so that each child can choose those that provide an optimal level of sensory stimulation for their individual preferences and comfort.

4. Provide Balancing Activities

Since balance and other gross motor skills can be a challenge for autistic kids, time on the playground can be especially beneficial for these kids. Playground activities can provide a helpful and fun way to practice these skills. Even without any equipment at all, a kid can practice balance as they play hopscotch or simply walk along a path.

To encourage this practice further, include a variety of balancing activities in your playground. Aim for different difficulty levels, from balancing from a seated position to balancing while standing and even while moving. Balance training activities may be able to help kids with ASD and increase their confidence when they leave the playground.

5. Provide Quiet and Cozy Spaces

One design consideration that can be helpful for kids with sensory processing challenges is the inclusion of quiet, secluded spaces. When a child starts to feel overwhelmed by all the sights and sounds on the playground, they may need a break to recenter themselves.

You can incorporate equipment like a tunnel that can be fun in a variety of ways but also offers a quiet, cozy haven for autistic kids. Quiet areas like the Tranquility Corner ensure visitors with autism have a positive experience on the playground, even in the midst of a sensory-overload sensation. Install these quiet areas away from the main playground and musical elements.

How to design a playground or park for kids with autism

6. Use Smooth Safety Surfacing

While providing a bit of challenge to help kids improve their balance can be a positive thing, you don’t want the whole playground to feel challenging to navigate. Instead, ensure kids can easily traverse the playground by using smooth, flat walking surfaces. These surfaces also make your playground more accessible for any kids with motor differences, whether they use a wheelchair, crutches or another device to get around.

Smooth surfacing can also make the playground safer for all kids. A child with ASD may be more likely to stumble than their peers who don’t experience motor impairments, so this safety surfacing is even more critical for them. Surfacing should help diffuse the energy of a fall and help kids avoid injury.

7. Provide a Variety of Social Interaction Opportunities

Social interactions can be challenging for kids with autism, but the playground can be an excellent place to practice these interactions through social play. Cooperative play is the most social form of play, but there are many stages of play that bridge the gap between solitary play and cooperative play. Children may observe other kids as they play or play alongside others without much interaction. All of these stages can be helpful for autistic kids and can get them more comfortable with social interactions.

Ensure your playground offers activities that suit varying levels of social interaction so you meet kids where they are and give them opportunities to push just beyond their comfort zones. The playground can be the perfect place for a child to make a new friend or learn valuable social skills they can take with them into other settings.

8. Use Your Playground’s Website as an Introduction

Kids with autism may be especially intimidated by the unknown. Their parents may be, as well, if they aren’t sure whether a space will meet their child’s unique needs. You can alleviate these concerns by providing as much information about your playground as possible online. Before making a trip out, a parent or caregiver will appreciate seeing and showing their child photographs, maps and other information on your website about the playground.

Include information specifically on inclusivity and design considerations for autistic children, and you’re sure to impress these families.

9. Highlight the Natural Environment

Nature can have a calming effect that is helpful for anyone who experiences anxiety, including kids with autism. This is one reason why outdoor play can be a wonderful outlet.

Look for ways to highlight nature in your playground design. This could be with natural materials like grass and rocks or a feature like a bubbling water fountain or stream. You can also bring the aesthetic of nature to the playground with nature-themed equipment. This equipment offers the modern safety features and designs of commercial playground equipment with the whimsy and beauty of nature.

10. Accommodate Various Skillsets

Remember that no two children with ASD will be exactly alike or experience the same set of strengths and weaknesses. All kids are unique and may have different combinations of challenges and abilities. Do your best to accommodate all skill sets and levels with a variety of inclusive equipment on your playground.

You should also put equipment designed for different ability levels in close proximity so kids can naturally interact with peers who are engaged in different activities. It’s also a great idea to include equipment that kids can use in various ways according to their ability level and their creativity.

How Do Inclusive Playground Designs Impact Peer Relationships?

Playgrounds can help kids develop social skills and make friends by promoting peer interaction. For autistic kids, social play may not come as naturally. Fortunately, inclusive playgrounds can help promote peer interactions for all children, including those with ASD.

group of friends at sensory wall

One study found that a group of young boys with autism thrived socially when they moved from a standard playground to one designed with their needs in mind. This playground offered the right level of physical challenge, supported imaginative play and included a clear circuit layout and observation points where kids could watch others play until they were comfortable joining in. Though this is an older study, it’s still valuable for demonstrating the effects that playground design can have on impacting peer relationships for kids with autism.

While autistic kids may struggle to interact with peers and make friends, this does not mean social interaction is not vital to their development and well-being, just as it is for other kids. Research shows that children with ASD can indeed form friendships and that many of these kids have a strong desire for friends. So rather than accepting social struggles as a reality for kids with autism, we should look for ways to better facilitate peer interactions and help these kids enjoy a fulfilling social life on their terms.

Inclusive playgrounds can be an excellent step forward in nourishing peer relationships. When autistic kids and other unique needs feel welcomed and comfortable on the playground, they’ll be more likely to engage with their peers. In doing so, they can make lifelong friends and learn valuable social skills that will continue to serve them even in adulthood.

How to Make Your Existing Playground More Inclusive for Kids With Autism

You don’t have to start from scratch to create an inclusive playground. Designing a playground from the ground up may make it easier to ensure the playground is inclusive, but you can also take steps to turn an existing playground into an inclusive space for kids with autism. Consider how you can incorporate the tips we discussed above into your existing playground. For example, you may want to add a fence around the perimeter of the play area if you don’t currently have one.

Another major way you can make any playground more accessible and fun for all kids is by installing inclusive playground equipment. This equipment is designed with different abilities in mind so all kids can enjoy taking part in playground activities. You could add a crawl tunnel or another piece of equipment where kids can hide away when they feel overwhelmed and want a moment to themselves, for instance.

You may also be able to alter the layout of existing equipment to provide a more intuitive path for kids to follow. Even small changes can still be a positive step toward creating a playground that fully embraces all kids and their varying abilities and needs.

Build Inclusive Playgrounds With Miracle® Recreation

child with autism on momentum corridor
Kids with autism deserve vibrant play spaces where they can be themselves and increase their confidence and capabilities. If you’re looking to make your playground more inclusive, the experts at Miracle Recreation can help. We have plenty of inclusive equipment options to choose from. Contact us today to discuss your needs and schedule a design consultation for autism playground equipment.

At Miracle Recreation, we’re aware of the ongoing debate in the autism community regarding the use of identity-first (autistic person) and person-first (person with autism) language. We understand the choice is a highly personal one, especially for individuals in the autism community, so we’ve decided to use a combination of person-first and identity-first language in this article.

Note: At Miracle Recreation, we’re aware of the ongoing debate in the autism community over the use of identity-first (autistic person) and person-first (person with autism) language. We understand the choice is a highly personal one, especially for individuals in the autism community, so we’ve decided to use a combination of person-first and identity-first language.