White House Municipal Park in White House, Tenn.
By David Mumpower
White House, Tenn., is a small town 25 miles north of Nashville. Its population of 7,220 may seem tiny compared to the big city nearby, but the small town has garnered its fair share of headlines in recent years. One suddenly famous family has captured the heart of America through a moving demonstration of the love between brothers. Earlier this year, Miracle Recreation honored their heroic tale of sibling affection by designing a playground worthy of them.
In 2012, Sports Illustrated named the duo the "Sports Kids of the Year." Even LeBron James was awed by the inspirational tale of Team Long Brothers. In his acceptance speech for Sportsman of the Year, he deferred to the boys sitting in the audience. Cayden and Conner Long, 11- and 8-year-old brothers, are just that memorable. Cayden Long suffers from a rare medical condition known as hypertonic cerebral palsy. It renders him unable to walk or talk.
Older brother Conner was undeterred by Cayden's medical status. One day, Conner decided to become a racer in children's triathlons. He refuses to perform without his brother by his side, though. When Conner competes, he pulls Cayden in tow along the way. When Conner performs in the biking portion of the race, Cayden rides in an attached trailer. During the swimming phase, Cayden tags along in a raft. And when Conner runs, he pushes Cayden in a stroller. If you are not tearing up at the thought of this, you must have a heart of stone. These races became a bonding exercise for the duo. For obvious reasons, they also have become a source of inspiration for onlookers mesmerized by the willpower and unconditional love of pre-teen boys.
Once Miracle Recreation learned about Team Long Brothers, they thoughtfully decided to build a one-of-a-kind inclusive playground in White House. As Katie Natoli of Miracle relayed, their initial contact with Conner stemmed from their offer for him to join their Not So Bored of Directors. The stated goal was for him "to help design thrilling playgrounds, for children of all abilities," especially for wonderful kids like his younger brother.
During Miracle Recreation's interactions with Conner and Cayden, they discovered a problem that needed to be solved. The boys' parents had to drive over an hour to find a suitable playground for their children. At this point, the playground manufacturer generously donated time and supplies to build the best imaginable playground in White House, Tenn. The facility already has begun to attract visitors from hundreds of miles away, making the city the unlikeliest of tourist destinations.
Building a playground worthy of the Sports Kids of the year is a serious undertaking. Miracle Recreation went straight to the source in asking Conner to determine the activities that he and his brother would love the best. He chose functional but fun options such as the Pull Along, an evolved overhead climber, and the Accelerator Group Swing, a weighted swing for collaborative riding. For obvious reasons, Conner's tastes run toward multi-person interactivity.
Due to Conner and Cayden's ages, the fun stuff is targeted toward kids aged 5 to 12. The musically inclined are especially happy with the playground's Music Station. Included in it are a trio of proprietary features, a xylophone, chime panel and calypso drum.
Tami Phillips of Miracle of KY & TN explained the thought process for the overall design of this inclusive facility. "This playground was designed so children of all abilities can play together, without labels. It is not thought of by the children as the playground for children with disabilities. It is just fun for all. All the play pieces are challenging and exciting for all of them to enjoy together." A key part of the building process was to craft accessible spaces for Cayden and others like him, thereby providing the kids maximum maneuverability with their wheelchairs.
The people involved with the construction have some further advice for other builders who want to design inclusive playgrounds in their own communities. Phillips noted that designers should remember that there are all types of disabilities. She suggests focusing on play events that "offer sensory experiences," because they provide a larger variety of inclusive activities for children. She proudly added, "There's a way to design a play environment that is inviting for children of all abilities, and that's what we have done in White House, Tenn."
For her part, Phillips considers this one of the crowning achievements of her career. "I was so honored when I was asked to be part of this team. From working with Connor and his family to the friends and community, it was amazing and very humbling. The Long family is such an inspiration and for all they have been through, they have to be the most positive people I have ever met. The love that Connor has for his brother no words can explain. I feel so blessed to have had the opportunity to make this project a reality. I wish everyone could have seen the smiles on the children's faces the day of the grand opening. There were no walls, just a lot of children playing together."