Spark Park to set inclusive standard for playgrounds

Organisers of a Southampton inclusive design initiative are hoping to set a national benchmark for the design of children’s play areas in the UK.

Spark Park, a site proposed for the city’s Central Park, will see about 2000m2 transformed into a play area that can be used by both able-bodied children and those with disabilities and learning difficulties.

The inspiration for the project came from Helle Nebelong, the Danish environmental designer responsible for Copenhagen’s Garden of Senses and The Nature Playground.

The partnership between Southampton City Council, three of the city’s schools for children with learning difficulties and charity Mencap is hoping to establish a set of inclusive design principles, based on a concept for Spark Park developed by consultancies Snug and Outdoor and LDA Design.

The two-year project is now at the Royal Institute of British Architects Stage E, with completed concepts, prototypes, costings and materials. The next step is raising the £1.6m of funds needed to build it.

Liz Smith, public arts officer at Southampton City Council, says the project is the first in the UK to explore inclusive play so thoroughly.

‘Play areas like the Diana, Princess of Wales’ Memorial Playground in Kensington Gardens, London are good, but they don’t fully meet the spectrum of needs that our team has identified, because it is manned and is not accessible at any time,’ says Smith.

Spark Park is the result of more than eight months of research, experimental workshops and focus groups, during which the needs of children with disabilities were evaluated.

The research found that traditional play areas excluded children with disabilities, to the point that parents avoided taking them to playgrounds altogether.

‘We wanted to create an environment with a natural setting that could be manipulated in different ways, and would push less able-bodied children to react to stimuli such as touch and smell, and to develop their spatial awareness,’ says Smith.

‘Parents’ instinct is to protect a physically vulnerable child, but that instinct also constrains their potential for learning and adventure. This is why an inclusive play environment like this is so important,’ she adds.

Snug and Outdoor and LDA Design devised a series of flowing, undulating surfaces made from timber. The ramps, curves and gradients aim to create fun terrain for wheelchair users.

Rising ridges, bridge links, netting, terracing that provides a look-out and sculptural installations aim to arouse curiosity and encourage children to react with their surroundings.

A polished and moulded slide, created by carving channels into mounded areas, provides support for physically vulnerable children, while sand, water and rocky terrains provide variations of grip and texture for others.

Spark Island is an interactive area specifically designed for autistic children.

Smith explains that those with autism typically don’t want to ‘run around’ – they are usually insular and tend to be fascinated by reflections, visuals and sounds.

Spark Island addresses this issue with a series of resonating sound and light installations that react to touch and echo touches of the finger and hand.

Helle Nebelong’s Approach to Inclusive Design for Children’s Play Areas

• Genius Loci is taking the ‘spirit of the area’ or character as a starting point for the design. This can be an unusual tree or a sculpture that helps create the atmosphere of a place. According to Helle Nebelong, this should inform the design of the space

• Standardised playgrounds do not challenge a child’s concentration because of simplified play. Asymmetrical forms and surfaces do more because they require estimations of distance, height and risk

• The scenery and properties of playgrounds should encourage children to use their imagination and create their own experiences

• More emphasis on nature and less on prefabrication

• For further information, visit

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