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Playgrounds and Mainstreaming

By Arthur Mittelstaedt, Jr., Ed.D, executive director, Recreation Safety Institute

"Determining the safety of playground equipment and surfaces for the mainstreamed is no easy task, considering the playground has three major elements: surfacing (under and around equipment), the play structures and the environs--appurtenances, barriers, benches and other features. All these elements must be made accessible. " -- Arthur Mittelstaedt Jr., EdD

The debate goes on about playgrounds being mainstreamed. Playgrounds have to be physical accessible in accordance with ADA, however, accessibility is different than multidisability mainstreaming and the definitions still vary. The American Educators' Encyclopedia states that a practice that involves assigning exceptional students to classes largely made up of handicapped students is considered mainstreaming.

The Dictionary of Education states "... main-streaming is integration of children with special educational needs with the normal school population."

Where mainstreaming has occurred and conducted successfully, there has been an even greater need for special educational personnel and facilities. The special education teacher is redeployed into more responsible roles in teaching children with special needs. The instructional materials, facilities and equipment used for special education is now assisting in providing increased opportunities to children who might not otherwise been eligible to use them.

Physical programs and activities should be designed to promote perceptual motor development for children with a variety of learning disabilities. The adapted physical activity should include developmental activities, procedures and methods for individuals with perceptual motor and specific leaning disabilities. Physical activities receive greater attention during the preschool and elementary years. The importance of well defined and planned programs at all age levels becomes paramount. The definition of adapted physical activities to include perceptual motor problems and specific learning disabilities makes this consideration of even greater importance. Children with specific learning disabilities influenced by lack of motor coordination and poor physical development are aided by participating in comprehensive adapted physical programs.

Nearly seven to eight percent of children have physical, mental, and emotional conditions to such a degree that some special programming including physical activities is necessary. Approximately 16 percent of every group of participants can benefit from individual attention and special programming because of low levels of physical fitness, specific motor deficiencies, or inadequate physical development. Some specialists have stated that more than half of many school populations have one or more specific learning disabilities that can be attributed in part to poor motor or perceptual motor development or inadequate physical condition. Even in the smallest groups of children, several adapted physical activities are needed and can be justified.

Safety covers such equipment as slides, swings, rotating equipment, rocking equipment climbers, stationery equipment and component play systems. The standard includes criteria for such hazards to those mainstreamed as entanglements, step spaces, pinching, crushing, sharp points and protrusions that may be found on older equipment.

The Public Play Equipment Standard is specific to public use. Two items critical to pulling the standard together and giving it comprehensive meaning is understanding equipment use zones and equipment fall heights. Equipment use height is measurements from a place from which a child might climb, stand, sit or be otherwise accessible and thus may fall. The measurement is the distance from that point to the top of the impact-attenuating surface. The specific dimensions on each piece of equipment are not yet established and will be done so by each individual manufacturer of each specific piece of equipment in their technical data sheets. This information is critical to be able to apply the extent of the fall zone and thus for the boundary of the surface that is to provide for the fall’s impact attenuation.

The surface of the playground includes the equipment use zone or that area that includes the immediate fall area, sometimes exit area and surrounding buffer area where traffic and circulation occurs. The surfacing guides the choice of playground equipment and layout. The technical data from each manufacturer must be consulted.

Safety is critical in a playground if it is to be mainstreamed for different disabilities beyond just the physical access to and within the play apparatus. The number of participants who can and who should be served by adapted physical activities shows that as the scope of these programs expands more playgrounds, special counselors, resource personnel and appropriate facilities and equipment are needed. Programs can be introduced and existing programs expanded without drastically changing playgrounds.

"Provisions must be made to include physical activity programs for all participants, not just those that take part in regular play. Those with low levels of physical fitness and specific motor deficiencies should be included in a broad and all-encompassing adapted environment." -- Arthur Mittelstaedt Jr., EdD

The Education for All Handicapped Children Act makes a number of critical stipulations that apply to all handicapped children who require special education. Physical education is the only subject named in the law’s definition of special education, therefore, any physical activity program with responsibility for handicapped children having special physical and/or motor needs must also adhere to the stipulations of the law.

The physical activity environment or the playground should accommodate handicapped children in all activities, recreation and instruction. Integrating the individual child into the regular play program, in addition to separate specialized programs, should provide more beneficial experiences.

Some owners will view the laws with apprehension, torn between the intent of the laws and having their programs become more complex. Public Law 94-142 states that a handicapped person must receive a free appropriate education. Physical education is a discipline subject to this law. Movement education has been a part of the handicapped person’s life through rehabilitation and growth. It seems a large number of physical educators and recreation people fear mainstreaming the handicapped person. The reasons range from group size, available facilities, to the basic ignorance of the problems and their solutions. PL 94-142 reflects a past failure to meet the needs of the handicapped and it must now be encouraged in the design and operation of playgrounds.

Today an impasse exists between mandated action, unprepared owners/operators and the handicapped individuals that have not received physical activity appropriate to their needs.

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December 7, 2019, 3:53 am PDT

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