Engineering and sociology researchers at the University of Leeds are joining forces to make playtime fun for all children.
Moves towards inclusive education have seen an increased number of disabled children attending mainstream school. However, disabled children can still feel excluded during break times if they are left on the sidelines and not invited to join in.
Dr Raymond Holt, from the School of Mechanical Engineering, and Dr Angharad Beckett, from the School of Sociology and Social Policy, are now embarking on a three-year project to work out what stops disabled and non-disabled children from playing together. They will explore the role that designers might play in overcoming these barriers, in a bid to make school playtime genuinely inclusive.
The design of toys and items of playground equipment can make it physically difficult for disabled children to join in group games. But whilst physical access is important, this is only part of the picture. Social and emotional aspects also motivate disabled and non-disabled children to play together - or stop them from doing so, according to the Leeds team.
The researchers plan to work with at least six friendship groups of two or three children from Years 3 and 4. Each group will contain at least one child who has a physical impairment, such as cerebral palsy or spina bifida.
The children will be asked about how they play together and also, how they would like to play together. They will then be encouraged to suggest ideas for toys, games or playground features that could overcome some of the barriers they have identified. Finally, they will help test some of their proposed solutions to see what works best.
"Disabled children don't want to feel that they have to play on their own," said Dr Holt. "In a previous project, we worked with groups of children with cerebral palsy to design equipment that would strengthen their muscles. The children told us that they would be much more likely to use the devices if they could do so whilst playing with their friends."
"Social play is recognised as being an important part of any child's personal and social development, yet for disabled children, the opportunities for play can be limited," said Dr Beckett. "This project provides the first step in a collaboration that will underpin future research into developing and supporting inclusive play - with disabled children at the heart of the research."
The interdisciplinary project, 'Together through Play', is being funded by the Leverhulme Trust. All prototype devices that are designed and tested as part of the project will comply with European directives on the safety of toys. The children will also be supervised at all times when playing with the prototypes.
Dr Raymond Holt and Dr Angharad Beckett are both members of the University of Leeds' Centre for Disability Studies. The Centre brings together researchers from across the University with a common interest in disability and society.
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