Making Inclusive Play Spaces the Norm

Only a handful of playgrounds in India are designed with disabled kids in mind, but things are changing

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There was a moment during her studies at the National Institute of Design that left Aditi Agrawal shocked. During a visit to a special school in Ahmedabad she learned that children with disabilities never played outdoors. They sat inside their classroom during free hours because the school had no playground for their special needs.

“Some of my best memories from childhood are from playgrounds,” Agrawal says. “I could not imagine that those kids would never get an opportunity to create those memories.”

On digging deeper, she and her classmate Anjali Menon, found that children with special needs do not go out to play as often as others—sometimes to save themselves from unkind comments or pity—mostly because they cannot find suitable spaces where they can play.

According to a 2014 report, the paucity of play spaces runs so deep, that less than 10% of India’s youth have access to a playground. And while there is no statistic on play spaces for kids with disabilities, experts say that there’s just a handful in a country which has 7.8 million children and youth with disability.

As part of their design school project, Agrawal and Menon designed their first playground in 2011 for the special school in Ahmedabad, which was executed thanks to a kind donor.

Concerned by the ignorance in special schools and a lack of inclusion in general, the duo set up their design studio, Gudgudee, in 2014. Since then Gudgudee has worked mostly with private entities in designing 35 inclusive play spaces in regular and special schools, playgrounds and apartments in 16 cities.

Many years before Gudgudee ventured into this area, Kilikili Trust, a consultancy formed by three parents of children with disabilities had started working on inclusive public playgrounds in southern India.

The idea was born in Kavitha Krishnamoorthy’s head in late 2004, when her autistic son was about two and a half. Krishnamoorthy, a social development professional, says, “One evening when we were at a public park with our son in Bangalore, my husband happened to remark: why don’t we see children with disabilities in parks?”. That got her thinking and after some research she discovered that inclusive play spaces did not exist in India at that time.

Many conversations later, the group of parents involved with Kilikili decided to work on tweaking existing parks in the city to make them inclusive. “Our kids spend a lot of time in special schools, therapy or rehabilitation centres and rarely get a chance to interact with nondisabled kids,” she says. “Inclusive parks could be a game changer for them.”

Kilikili consulted parents, teachers, therapists and kids themselves to put together their aspirations and wish list for the kind of public play spaces they wanted to see. The requests were taken to the municipal commissioner and the first inclusive park was ready in Bangalore by the end of 2006. Today, Kilikili is behind eight inclusive parks in six Indian cities.

Inclusive public play spaces for children with disabilities in Indian cities.
Kilikili develops inclusive public play spaces in Indian cities. Photo courtesy Kilikili

“All it takes is a few modifications in the original design to make an inclusive playground,” Krishnamoorthy says. “It doesn’t even require extra funds.”

For instance, the approach to a park is made wheelchair friendly and so is play equipment such as slides and the rotating merry-go-round. Replacing a regular swing with a bucket-shaped one ensures that children with developmental delays who don’t have enough upper body support can swing independently.

Sensory walking tracks are not only great for blind kids, but also for kids with autism who have sensory processing difficulties. “Some may be hypersensitive to touch while others may not even feel a pin’s prick,” Krishnamoorthy explains. Exposure to a sensory integration pathway that offers different kind of stimuli helps such kids by normalising their responses over a period of time.

So does a sand pit. Which is why there is always one set up at table height for children using wheelchairs. Slides are constructed at different gradients and a tubular one is introduced for kids who have a fear of heights.

At the moment, Kilikili Trust and Gudgudee are the only known organisations offering a complete solution to creation of inclusive play spaces in India. “Play is not given much importance in schools or homes and is definitely not considered critical for development,” Krishnamoorthy says.

However, studies prove that kids with disabilities are at significant risk of limited participation in school, with consequences on their quality of life, achievement and well-being. Agrawal believes being a designer for inclusive play spaces is also a difficult career choice, given the ignorance. “Even though institutions introduce design for people with special needs, it isn’t an easy profession to be in, as it involves a lot of customer literacy,” Agrawal says.

“But things are changing,” Krishnamoorthy says. With the advent of the concept of smart cities in India, many municipal corporations are now interested in adopting innovative design in building new public spaces. Once they see for themselves how easy it is to build an inclusive park, they grab the opportunity.

“The biggest beneficiaries are, of course, the children,” Krishnamoorthy says. The ones with disabilities  get a chance to participate in play and mingle with other kids instead of just sitting and watching them from afar. The nondisabled children get a taste of diversity. This familiarisation is providing an environment that makes a case for inclusion in the future.


Main image: Playground designed by Gudgudee, Aditi Agrawal and Anjali Manon. Photo courtesy Gudgudee

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