Feature Article - July 2009
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Nature and Nurture

Trends in Play Design

By Emily Tipping

For more natural play elements, kids of all abilities can take part in a dinosaur dig in the sand play area, which is designed so kids in wheelchairs can also dig. And the water-play area features a push-button start instead of a motion sensor so children who may be unsteady on their feet are not startled.

"All children, even those with challenges, need nature," Stoecklin said. "Research has proven that children with specialized behavior and learning needs respond very favorably to the natural world. We have always used what we call universal design, which goes beyond the Americans with Disabilities Act and looks at how each child can participate in all activities side-by-side."

For an example, she said that a hiding bush can be made accessible easily through attention to turning radius, surfacing and reach ranges. A sandbox can be made accessible with 6-inch steps with rails, a transfer station for those in wheelchairs and back supports for the children who need them.

A World of Play

There is one other way of looking at accessibility—and that from the perspective of children who do not have access to open space or play spaces at all.

In a recent study commissioned by KaBOOM! and conducted by Harris Interactive of 1,677 parents with children between the ages of 2 and 12, 59 percent of parents reported that their children do not have access to a community playground. And in the lowest income bracket, that number goes up to 69 percent.

The vast majority of parents surveyed felt that playing outside is critical to keeping kids physically fit, but less than a fifth (17 percent) thought children played enough outside, and parents reported that their children spend less than an hour per day engaged in unstructured play outdoors.

All in all, the study reveals that although the message about the importance of play in children's lives is getting out there, that doesn't mean children are given the time and space they need for play on a daily basis.

To help fix the problem, parents also say they're willing to work to ensure their kids can play, with more than half indicating they'd be willing to work to build new playgrounds, raise funds for equipment and encourage their schools to open playgrounds during non-school hours.

Like KaBOOM!, the Trust for Public Land (TPL) has been working to bring play and park spaces to underserved areas. Recent success stories include the transformation of vacant lots in Boston's park-poor Dorchester district into a space for the neighborhood to play.

One of Boston's most multi-racial areas, Dorchester is home to 16 percent of the population of the City of Boston. And while Boston averages 10 acres of public open space per 1,000 residents, Dorchester is far behind, averaging less than five acres of open space per 1,000 residents.

This small project on Elmhurst Street, whose grand opening was set for June 27 (just days after the writing of this story) will feature play structures, hopscotch courts, jump-rope areas, sandboxes, swing sets, water jets and grassy lawns for the kids, with amenities to suit adults as well, like shade, barbecue pits, seating areas and picnic tables.

The park will provide access to play and nature for those whose options have been limited. You can't beat that.