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Inclusive play and respect for diversity

How do you design a playground that promotes inclusiveness for all children? First, you have to try out such a playground yourself. On 2 December 2021, the Smart Societies coalition started this process.

During the meeting, scientists from the fields of psychology, interactive technology, ethical computing and sensing shared their knowledge and experience with organisations that have expertise in the field of inclusive playground design, i.e. the Johan Cruyff Foundation, Jantje Beton and Yalp. First of all, the participants really played themselves in an interactive playground built by Yalp. The research is part of the Smart Areas focus area. Geographical areas are monitored, managed and controlled by smart technology to improve the daily quality of life.

Carolien Rieffe is Professor of Social Interaction Technology at the UT and coalition coordinator of Smart Societies at the UT. Inclusion runs like a thread through all her activities and research and she is very enthusiastic about the coalition: 'We are very complementary in our commitment to inclusion and we really do this together.'    

Inclusiveness for all children

'For all children it is important that they can play and exercise. It promotes their physical and mental health, and enables them to develop properly. But playgrounds or schoolyards are sometimes difficult to access for children with special needs, such as autism, deafness or a visual impairment. As a result, these children are regularly left by the wayside, both literally and figuratively. The question is how this can be changed. How do you create a facility that optimally promotes inclusiveness for all children? This was the topic of the meeting, which was wonderful and very active. I ran my legs off.’

New ideas and insights

‘The meeting is also a good example of how we (want to) work as a coalition. Many different areas of expertise come together here. In a nutshell: the UT supplies the technology for interactive playgrounds and also has expertise in clinical developmental psychology and child psychiatry. VU Amsterdam has unique expertise in the field of privacy and bias in both AI and data collection. In addition, our social partners such as the Johan Cruyff Foundation, Jantje Beton and Yalp have a wealth of experience in the field of exercise and health and how to design outdoor spaces for this. All this different and complementary knowledge and experience makes for a good cross-pollination of new ideas and insights.’ 

Measuring on an individual level 

‘In this study, we measure what children with special needs do on a playground or schoolyard. Using a sensor that the children carry with them, we map out exactly where they go or stand. For example, are there areas they do or do not go to and to which extent do they move around among other children? By measuring this at an individual level, we gain insight into the behaviour and therefore also into the needs of the children. In which places, moments and situations is it safe and pleasant for which children and when is it not? These insights enable us and our partners, together with the children themselves, to further improve and refine the design of playgrounds and schoolyards so that they become as optimal as possible for all children.’ 


What do you need?  

‘Because in the end we all care for inclusiveness and respect for diversity. This means that children are allowed to be themselves and are respected and appreciated for that. Even if they are different from the vast majority. We want to develop playgrounds and schoolyards with the aim of facilitating this. We do this by asking children with support needs: what do you need to be able to play safely and with pleasure? It's great to be able to do that with this coalition. The broad expertise in this coalition gives me another way of thinking. It's like walking around a toy shop and picking out what I like. How wonderful is that? VU Amsterdam is great when it comes to privacy and bias. It is very important that our data is valid, especially as it concerns clinical groups, and VU Amsterdam ensures that this is the case. Moreover, I obtained my doctorate at VU Amsterdam, so it feels a bit like coming home.’

A common language for the future 

‘I have spoken intensively with many people within the coalition to gather input for our research. This has led, among other things, to a research proposal that we have submitted to the Dutch Research Council (NOW) in the framework of the National Science Agenda. That proposal really contains everything our coalition is concerned with: sensor data, child psychiatry, public administration, architecture, computer science. In both this application and in the schoolyard project, our coalition is also working with TU Delft, Leiden University, a mental health institution and INTER-PSY in Groningen. When I read the final version of the proposal, I could no longer identify which pieces were mine. Great, because that means we have found a common language as a coalition. And that is very promising for the future.’  

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