How Splash Pad Design Can Encourage and Promote Inclusive Play

How Splash Pad Design Can Encourage and Promote Inclusive Play Image

In recent years, our industry has placed a premium on creating inclusive play areas not only in parks but also for aquatics facilities.

We now are seeing many recreation departments, homeowner’s associations and community centers installing splash pads designed to welcome users with a wide range of developmental, cognitive and physical abilities. This also is meant to accommodate different age groups — especially senior citizens, who often act as caregivers to children.

In fact, inclusive play has become an even greater priority as we slowly emerge from the pandemic, with outdoor spaces remaining the safer place to spend time.

As manufacturers and designers, we see a trend in all playgrounds — whether dry or aquatic — to design areas that accommodate all community members, regardless of age or abilities. Splash pads are no different, so they need to include sections that attract and encourage a wide range of patrons. Using a variety of water features, colors and sizes, as well as flow and space configurations, can make the facility even more accessible.

The inclusive play trend coupled with the needs of a community dictate the specific requirements of a splash pad. For several years I have worked with Adam Brewster, a landscape architect at Dunaway Associates in Fort Worth, Texas, a civil engineering and landscape architecture firm working with communities and their needs. He explained to me how his firm has come to embrace inclusivity in parks and aquatic splash pad designs.

It begins with community input meetings, where the design team engages with users to learn about their needs.

“On a recent project, for example, our community outreach meetings included a participant with physical and cognitive limitations, reinforcing the importance of making our project fully accessible,” he explained. “This experience was invaluable for our team, as it helped ensure our design would make it easy for her to enjoy the splash pad with her family.”

Understanding these needs has helped us as manufacturers and designers to really consider all aspects of inclusivity when putting together a project.

Design for physical/mobility limitations

There are a few best practices that we have learned over the years when it comes to creating inclusive splash pad designs.

One of those is making sure that the surface and slopes of a play area are designed with its users in mind. The structural slab upon which the splash pad is built plays an extremely important role in the comfort of those with physical or mobility limitations. The water must drain properly to avoid puddling or ponding, as this can be dangerous for users.

In addition, the surface must be flat and provide clearance for maneuverability around each play feature. There are specific requirements for slopes and cross slopes on splash pads dictated by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to ensure safety and inclusivity. The drain system is pretty important here: The drains must be sized and placed so water does not collect in an area and create hazards for users.

We have learned that designers also must take care that users with mobility limitations can operate all the features in the play area. Many features can be too complex for some users to manipulate.

“Being able to grip, grasp, push and pull different components is something not all children can do,” Adam explained to me recently.

We have learned that features foster inclusivity when they are intuitive to operate. In the past, we thought having many activators and programmable elements would help with this goal, but Adam and his team helped us realize that many users cannot operate those items. They are more successful if one can just walk up and start using them rather than having to look for an activator. “Water cannons are one of our favorite features,” Adam says. “The up-and-down motion of the unit turns it on and off, making it extremely simple to operate.”

Designs for developmental/cognitive limitations

The arrangement of play features is key to ensuring those with developmental or cognitive limitations have areas in the splash pad where they can participate.

A variety of sensory experiences that build upon one another make the facility more inclusive for these users. For example, the designer can create a sequence of features, starting with sensory exploration on something as simple as a bubbler, and slowly graduating to those with increased intensity, which draw users into the splash pad. Done properly, this provides the opportunity for users to try something more powerful, like an archway with spraying water, but also allows them to quickly retreat to a less forceful water feature. Moving from one zone to another, users can explore at their own pace.

Unlike playgrounds, which are rated by suggested ages, splash pads should be defined by the intensity of their water features. For example, some children are not keen to get their head wet as a sensory experience, which is not necessarily related to age. “Each child develops their ability to process sensory experiences differently,” Adam says. “So it’s important to have zones with lower water use that progress through a sequencing path, which moves up to more energetic features, such as dumping buckets.”

Today, a wide variety of elements are available to help with play sequencing. One can start with a range of bubblers and water-weaving features with visually interesting patterns that draw users into the splash pad without the fear of being confronted with a lot of water all at once.

“Another of my go-to favorites is the ‘mushroom-maze’ — a simple, yet attractive design for users of all ages and abilities,” Adam says. “Kids can either play from outside the mushroom of water or sit under the dome of sprays, which creates a pleasing white noise and allows them to retreat into a world of their own.”

Within an inclusive splash pad, there should be separate areas for different activities, where participants can be soaked or splashed, in zones of high energy levels as well as areas along the edge of the facility for those who prefer to enjoy by themselves.

Designs for older generations

More and more, we see outside play areas being configured to accommodate older generations.

For this group, both the splash pad surface and surrounding area should be flat to facilitate the wheels of walkers and wheelchairs. The surfaces should not have any irregular cross slopes to make things more difficult for those with mobility and balance limitations. Because we understand that older users generally play a supervisory role, it has become important to provide comfortable areas where they can stand or sit and easily oversee children. Shaded seating and accessible routes to benches make a splash pad highly successful for caretakers, especially grandparents.

“When we put together our designs, the splash pad or spray ground is often the center piece, while the supporting group pavilions, benches and shade areas help create an inclusive environment for older generations,” Adam explains.

Sight lines and supervision

Be sure that the inclusive-play elements incorporated into a splash pad provide unobstructed sight lines across all areas. This is key for users who are supervising children, especially those experiencing physical, developmental or cognitive limitations.

Designers tell us that larger, solid elements sometimes should be minimized to limit the places where children can hide.

Sights and sounds

As with any community gathering space, a visually striking splash pad can provide excitement and interest for all users. Oftentimes, we find that using a large, iconic water feature within the splash pad is important. Large buckets of water that anchor the space add an element of attraction even when the facility is not in use. Just watching the water flow — even from a distance — adds to the excitement.

Large rings that spray a mist provide another eye-catching option. These are attractive and easily integrate into a sequencing design. Having water splash, cascade and bubble creates a series of soothing sounds, which invariably enhances the ambience.

Splash pads serve as more than water-play areas. By employing strategies to enhance the overall visual aesthetic, they can lend year-round appeal to a facility, even in winter. Some clients, especially homeowners’ associations and residential developments, like to add lighting and changing the colors several times a year. For example, red and green can be used around the winter holidays.

Choosing water feature products

As parks and recreation facilities work to choose inclusive play products from different partners, it’s important to consider everything from durability and ‘play value’ to products that provide a variety of experiences. “As designers, we tend to evaluate an entire product line from a supplier to see if it offers a variety of inclusive play items,” Adam says.


A splash pad play area can become a gathering place for people of all abilities, ages and backgrounds to relax and connect through the joy of water. Not only does the naturally inclusive landscape offer a fun adventure for a community, but also satisfies their unique physical and cognitive needs. A simple but powerful space, an inclusive aquatic facility offers a glimpse of the larger picture of universal well-being and connectivity.

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