Caring for those in Need

Creating Opportunities for Adaptive Recreation

While more and more new playgrounds are being designed with inclusivity in mind, many older playgrounds don’t have equipment and features to support adaptive play for all. If your favorite local playground is one of them, just know there are options for updating. One option that can be especially appealing is to retrofit the existing playstructure.

BY Jill Moore | July 2013 | Category: Adaptive Sports and Recreation

Creating Opportunities for Adaptive Recreation

Author’s note: In recognition of the varying language preferences across the disability community and experience, throughout this article I’ve used person-first language (i.e. children with disabilities) and identity-first language (i.e. disabled children) interchangeably. 

Author’s note: In recognition of the varying language preferences across the disability community and experience, throughout this article I’ve used person-first language (i.e. children with disabilities) and identity-first language (i.e. disabled children) interchangeably.

The process of retrofitting a playground can involve replacing or upgrading existing components and adding fresh new components. A retrofit can address both the primary playground structures – like slides and swings – as well as other aspects of the playground, like surfacing and shade. New products can be incorporated into the play structure or added as freestanding components. Best of all, these new or upgraded elements can be specifically designed with disability and inclusion in mind, to help make the space more inclusive for people of all abilities.

The groups that manage playgrounds, such as parks and recreation departments, schools, and other community organizations, appreciate retrofitting as an option, for several reasons. First, it’s an approach with sustainable benefits because it makes use of the playground’s existing components. Retrofitting also costs less than a full playground replacement, allowing for a range of options to suit different budgets and funding levels. It can often be done in a shorter timeframe, minimizing the time a playground is closed – which is a priority for everyone, most especially the kids themselves! 


Since 2010, playgrounds have been required to be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which is why people tend to make physical accessibility the first priority when discussing inclusivity. And yes, inclusive playgrounds should always be accessible to people who have differing levels of mobility and for people using mobility devices. However, that only scratches the surface when it comes to the needs of the larger community of disabled people and what a retrofit can bring to a playground to support that community.

Here are a few playground upgrades that can be retrofitted to support a variety of needs and types of play. 

Musical Play

Music-themed elements are a convenient option when refreshing a playground for inclusion.  They offer rich sensory benefits for all – even those who are deaf or hard of hearing can experience them through the vibrations of the instruments.

Musical play is multigenerational, so kids and adults of all ages can get involved, and it fosters creativity. Musical play also benefits those who use mobility devices, as it’s an activity that doesn’t require transferring out of a device to use. Additionally, individuals who are blind or low vision often use the sound from musical instruments to help orient them as to where they are in the play space.

Scavenger Hunts

Changing out activity panels may seem like a relatively small change, but it can make a big difference in the playground experience. One popular option is “seek and find” panels that create an interactive experience as kids search for pictures or symbols across the playground. These panels also can be installed in different areas, including at the ground level, making it simple for kids of all abilities to gather and work together to complete the activities. 

Story Trails

Sometimes, the same element can encourage opportunities to both be still and get moving. Story trails, which tell a story across several panels located in different parts of the playground, and “Talking is Teaching” panels from the Clinton Foundation’s Too Small to Fail program, promote children’s early brain and vocabulary development. They encourage kids and their parents or caregivers to talk, read and sing together. Not only can this type of activity help kids develop their language skills, but it encourages movement and play throughout the play space and along walkways. 

Vibrant Colors

A fresh paint job will modernize any space – but it also makes a playground more inclusive. Faded or monochromatic playground elements can create challenges for people who are low vision or have a color deficiency. Introducing brighter colors with greater contrast makes it easier to gauge depth perception and brings the playground space to life in new and exciting ways. 

Shade and Shelter

While everyone needs to be mindful of how much time they spend in the sun, people with disabilities are often hyper aware of heat exposure due to medications they’re taking or levels of injury. Integrating more shade into a playground can give all visitors breaks from direct exposure to the sun and help individuals with disabilities avoid risk. This is also a great way to reinvigorate underused playground areas and make them more appealing and accessible for all. 

Enhanced Signage

In addition to adding signage that helps playground visitors find their way around, a retrofit can introduce signage that assists with communication. Panels with universal symbols allow people to point to what they feel, or what they need or want, such as going down the slide or going to the bathroom. This can make playgrounds more inclusive to nonverbal people, and it can be a helpful tool for anyone trying to hear a soft voice on a noisy playground. These signs also can provide prompts for children who struggle to express themselves. 


A recent retrofit of Lincoln Glen Park in San Jose highlights the wide variety of updates that can make a playground more inclusive. The park’s retrofit specifically aimed to serve and engage those who are on the autism spectrum, are medically fragile, and have sensory, cognitive, developmental, and physical disabilities.

The park’s updates improved physical accessibility, with wheelchair-accessible slopes leading to play areas, as well as wide paths and ramps. The retrofit also introduced new sensory-engaging elements, as well as landscaping with stimulating colors, textures, and fragrances to help people of varying abilities navigate the space. And, the park introduced storytelling, with a theme highlighting the early history of the local area, Willow Glen, which served as a postal communications hub in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. 

Once you begin to explore the possibilities of adaptive recreation, you will see how it benefits people of all abilities. Any playground – even older spaces with more dated equipment – can be retrofitted with upgrades and additions that make the space more inclusive and responsive to the needs of the community. By working together to create more opportunities for inclusive play, communities can enrich life and learning for all kids.  


Jill Moore brings the voice of the disabled community and inclusive design practices into the product-development process at Landscape Structures. With a specific focus on merging lived experience with universal design principles, Jill promotes and educates audiences on the importance of integrating inclusion in play, and bringing people with disabilities into the conversation. As an accredited educational presenter – both in the classroom and the playground – play has become her full-time role. During her lifetime, Jill has represented Team USA as a multi-sport athlete, bringing perspective on the importance of recreation and how imperative equitable access to play is for all. 

Read the article here.