Facility Profile - February 2008
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All-Access Pass to Play

Tilles Park in Ladue, Mo.

By Kelli Anderson

hen the playground at Tilles Park in Ladue, Mo., opened for its first full season this past May, its creators quickly realized that the park's goal to provide interactive play for children of all ages and abilities had succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.

"The park is getting over 2,000 kids a day," said Jim Wolterman, principal with SWT Design of St. Louis. "No one expected it. It's become an icon where people are measuring other play experiences."

With an assenting nod to the success of the new playground and splash play area, the park was recognized as the best playground in the St. Louis area by St. Louis Magazine this past summer.

The park's initial concept was sparked by the St. Louis Children's Hospital's desire to create an inclusive play space where children with disabilities could fully interact with their able-bodied and/or neurologically typical siblings and friends. "It was all started by an ER nurse in St. Louis who was tired of needless playground injuries," said Greta Todd, director of advocacy and outreach at the hospital. "Since the late '90s, we've built over 30 playgrounds, but it was evident we also needed a place for children with special needs. Every child needs a place to play."

When the hospital approached SWT Design with the idea for an inclusive playground, it was evident that research into the specific needs of disabled children was going to be key. "You've got to do your homework," said Mike Flad, project manager and landscape architect with the St. Louis County Parks Department, a collaborative partner in the project, providing land and now maintaining the space. "It's very important to figure out who is your customer base—ours was very wide. We talked with people who were knowledgeable about auditory processing disorders, autism, the hearing-impaired and more to incorporate as many stimulating experiences as possible."

Recognizing, however, that ADA compliance and safety concerns often lead to boring play design, collaborators on the project were determined that accessible could also mean fun. The result was a park design that limits no one and includes everyone in its invitation to play and imagine. Slides, for example, are made of stainless steel because plastic slides generate electricity that can short out cochlear implants in the hearing-impaired.

Physically disabled children who require special swing seating can now swing and squeal alongside their able-bodied friends and siblings. The sand area, raised high for wheelchair access, enables kids of all abilities to build their towering masterpieces together.