Feature Article - March 2010
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All Together Now

Making Play Safe & Accessible

By Matthew M.F. Miller

Knitter said it is important to have access ramps into the playground and to design in a buffer area so exposed curbs and walls aren't located right next to a possible drop off that could be hazardous if a wheelchair were to veer off the path. Some of the innovative accessibility and safety elements they added to the Woodridge Park are:

  • Installing a ramp system from one entrance to the other so that a child in a wheelchair does not have to leave his/her chair to interact on the playground. This was achieved by explaining this goal to the playground manufacturer, who in turn worked with them to make their vision a reality. They also created at-grade (no curb) entrances so that those same users can access other portions of the playground (not on the ramp) as all able-bodied patrons do.
  • They incorporated high-contrast colors not only in the play equipment but also along routes for the children that are vision impaired.
  • Installing non-plastic slides that do not distort hearing aids.
  • Offering areas of the playground that are not wide open, but instead use repetitive patterns that can be relaxing for kids with cognitive impairments who may not always want to be with a large group of kids that are playing together.

"Children learn socialization skills at a playground," Knitter said. "Just by observing a busy playground, you can easily see how kids learn how to share and take turns, how to meet new friends, and ask questions about things that they may not see in their everyday life, giving them opportunities to learn diversity and understanding and accepting of all types of people."

Dave Williams agrees with Knitter. The Bloomington Parks & Recreation Department has made a commitment to provide safe and exciting play environments for all, which has been both costly and rewarding.

"We may offer higher play events then most and with that comes the responsibility to keep up with inspections and maintenance, especially surfacing," he said. "People should design to encourage group play and interaction." He encourages park owners to look at other site influences in the playground design, such as proximity to parking lots and vehicle traffic, and large trees with overhanging branches that provide shade but may create an overhead hazard.

"Look at the entire site, not just the space required for the playground layout. What are the nearby recreational uses? A baseball field creates a risk with foul or thrown balls coming into the play area, a basketball court where the language and behavior gets a bit aggressive doesn't mix well with a children's playground environment."

Knitter believes that a park's design can foster health benefits, an important bonus in light of the U.S. childhood obesity epidemic, but the design has to be intuitive, inviting and a place that allows kids and families to interact.

"Playgrounds are very essential to reducing childhood obesity," she said. "By designing playgrounds to have multiple routes within them, kids will find new ways to play on the same equipment each time they come to the park. This is important in keeping their interest in coming back to play and move with other kids outside, which is a critical part of reducing childhood obesity.

Williams agreed that if the child and parent find the playground environment you've created difficult to use or lacking excitement, or they find their friends don't go there for the same reasons—it's an opportunity lost.

"I would stress the need to create a complete play environment where both adult and child can participate," he said. "Provide the amenities, such as adult and children's sized picnic tables under shade trees where the family can eat their lunch on-site and resume play instead of playing for 15 minutes before heading to McDonald's."