Feature Article - March 2010
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All Together Now

Making Play Safe & Accessible

By Matthew M.F. Miller

First Steps

Dave Williams, operations manager for the Bloomington (Indiana) Parks & Recreation Department, said that parks, after all, are for the community, by the community. It's essential to put the needs and desires of your constituents front and center.

"Seek public comment in a manner that gets you the precise information you need," Williams said. "Consult not only children, but also talk to parents and adult caregivers. Create a play environment that is exciting, challenging and offers the creature comforts that make children and the adults that accompany them want to stay and recreate for extended periods of time. We've found a well-thought-out playground with the necessary amenities can do wonders in adding new life to an old park."

And that all begins with proper planning.

Terry Hendy, a member of the International Play Equipment Manufacturers Association (IPEMA) and president and owner of Site Masters Inc., said that a vital step many owners of older playgrounds overlook could save them a lot of wasted time and money in the long run.

"For redoing a very old playground they should first have an audit done of the playground to determine the level of compliance with current standards," Hendy said. "They should look at the condition of the existing equipment and determine what is worth trying to bring into compliance and what should simply be removed."

She recommends having the surface evaluated to determine whether or not it is compliant with today's recommendations. For new sites, it is important that the playground is appropriate for the intended age user of the equipment; that the equipment and location of the equipment is consistent with the ASTM F 1487 Standards for Public Playground Equipment; and that the surfacing is consistent with the recommendations of the CPSC Handbook and the ASTM F 1292 Standard for Playground Surfacing Materials.

"Also, the development of the playground areas as well as the equipment and surfacing must meet the intentions of the Americans with Disabilities Act," she said.

Easier Access

Jennifer Skulski, director of marketing and special projects for the National Center on Accessibility, said that the first step in creating a usable playground is to apply the principles of universal design to the layout of a new playground. In today's world, when you're looking at the accessibility of your design choices, you're not just looking for ways to make your playground practical for kids that use wheelchairs, but for any person—child or adult—that might have specific needs in order to enter and enjoy the facility.

"Get away from prescriptive design and apply principles to reach a wide array of users and provide choice," Skulski said.

She points to a project in South Bend, Ind., which was funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation's Access to Recreation program, as a sterling example. Potawatomi Park "Fun for All" built a universally accessible play structure that offers users the ability to interact with each piece of play equipment without having to leave a wheelchair, as well as assistive elements if the user wants to leave an assistive device to play. Each type of equipment, whether spinning, swinging or climbing, is thoughtfully placed to encourage interaction between all users. The entranceway is designed with an accessible gazebo that houses a sound wall and interpretive maps with an audio component to help those with hearing and vision impairments better navigate the park.