Feature Article - September 2003
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Kids Just Wanna Have Fun

Playground design trends mix excitement with accessibility and safety

By Kelli Anderson

No child left behind
This Los Angeles park offers an innovative, universally accessible playground.

One out of 10 children in the United States has a disability. They are a broad population ranging from the most easily recognized with wheelchairs and mobility devices to those whose presence is largely undetectable—those with hearing loss, who are blind or struggle with sensory integration such as children with high-functioning autism. Despite their large numbers, families with children with disabilities often do not make their needs or their presence known in a community, which lead some to the false assumption that they do not exist.


Frustrated at playground designs following the minimum ADA guideline requirements (which may have ramps or transfer points but offer little else), these families often choose not to go to the majority of playgrounds where their children are sidelined at best with nothing to do once they get there or worse, have to remove their mobility devices and crawl around in a dehumanizing, foreign fashion. Most simply choose not to go.

Ten years after the ADA, the concept of universal accessibility—bringing children with disabilities not just to the playground equipment but engaging them with their able-bodied peers on the equipment—has taken flight. Paradigm-changing playgrounds are now being designed with a greater understanding of what it takes to allow children with disabilities to fully participate and be in the center of play, such as the playground at the Siskin Children's Institute in Chattanooga, Tenn., designed by Boundless Playgrounds or Aiden's Place in Westwood, Calif., designed by Shane's Inspiration. It is not uncommon for families to come from as far as 100 miles away to take advantage of an opportunity for their children to experience the benefits of play, which are not only physical but also cerebral and social. Kids just wanna have fun together.

Bridging the gap

"The biggest practical issue is opportunity for children to get to the play space," explains Jean Schappet, creative director and co-founder of Boundless Playgrounds based in Bloomfield, Conn.


"Playgrounds may have access components, but they can't get to it," agrees Ron Derk, director of sales and marketing for a playground manufacturer, pointing out a common problem. "Some have surfacing but no path to the play area. A child can't get to it or a parent who is disabled."

Basic considerations include curb cuts; accessible surfacing for wheelchairs such as poured-in-place rubber, rubber tiles or rubber nuggets; accessible pathways at transfer points and ramps; catwalks wide enough to accommodate mobility devices; and transfer points and ramps that don't require the child to "take off their legs" as one child put it, so that accessing with dignity is possible.

"In most places I have to crawl out of my wheelchair," says Jeffrey, 9, describing the experience. "I feel like an ant."

Show Me the Money

All playgrounds can be universally accessible so that children of all abilities can interact and enjoy the benefits of play together. According to Jean Schappet, founder of Boundless Playgrounds in Bloomfield, Conn., which has helped design and consult universally accessible playgrounds since 1998, regional projects that have budgets from $150,000 to $200,000 can more than adequately manage a universally accessible design. However, smaller projects whose budgets are more limited can still be universally integrated with a little creative help.

"If a budget is between $20,000 to $50,000 for a small playground, one grant of $5,000 to $10,000 makes a huge difference," Schappet says. "One small grant could change the whole environment."

  • Organizations like Boundless Playgrounds, Shane's Inspiration and Hadley's Park Inc., which are devoted to making playgrounds universally accessible, offer plenty of strategies for collaborating with foundations and communities to raise additional funds.
  • Playground equipment manufacturers offer many financing options as well as offering their own lists of generous corporate and organizational sugardaddys.
  • Charitable organizations like Ronald McDonald Charities can link projects to local and national foundations and set up matching funds.
  • Fraternal organizations like the Lions, Kiwanis or Rotary can be quite generous.
  • Neighborhoods, sometimes required to come up with half the budget costs of a new playgrounds, often use fund-raising yard sales, donations, pooling employer's matching funds and grant programs.