Feature Article - July 2009
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Nature and Nurture

Trends in Play Design

By Emily Tipping

Nature-and Play-for All

There's another benefit of providing more natural elements on the playground. It's an improvement for children with disabilities. While they may not be able to reach the highest deck of the traditional playground, in a garden spot, they'll be able to play alongside their peers.

It's critical when planning a new playground to ensure that you follow the ADA guidelines and incorporate the correct number of accessible elements. It's even better when you apply universal design principles like wide ramps and play elements that stimulate the senses to allow kids of all abilities to play together, rather than separately.

Many manufacturers are creating elements that make no distinction between kids with disabilities and others on the playgrounds. Children and adults of all ages can cooperate to make music with some of the new musical instruments found among play elements, and sand and water bowls give everyone a chance to be a "scientist" and "experiment" with natural elements.

According to Stoecklin, careful attention to the way the play environment and play equipment are designed can ensure children with and without disabilities will be able to play right alongside one another.

"That's why we practice universal design," she said, "looking from all perspectives, not just kids in wheelchairs. There are children with visual impairments, Downs syndrome—it's not necessarily wheelchairs. By designing the environment right and the equipment well, you can encourage side-by-side play."

She added that it's also important to get the surface right, because if you have the right equipment but not the right surfacing, your efforts will be in vain.

In Boston Public Schools, where 20 percent of enrolled children receive specialized education for some type of disability, a traditionally designed playground at Harambee Park in Dorchester was recently replaced by the Boston Parks and Recreation and Boundless Playgrounds with a playground that provides access for children of all abilities. The first Boundless Playground for the city, the Harambee Park playground includes ample space for kids of varying degrees of ability to play side-by-side. An elevated gazebo at the playground's center enables children with disabilities to get up high and get a view of the world they rarely get to enjoy. In addition, the playground includes play panels, swings with high backs and unitary surfacing, a type of safety surface that is easily accessible for children with wheelchairs or mobility issues.

"Creating fully inclusive playgrounds reflects Boston's ongoing commitment to create opportunities for all its residents. Playgrounds like Harambee minimize differences among children while creating a realization among adults that disabilities do not have to limit opportunities for all children to play together," said William Kiernan, director of the Institute for Community Inclusion.

Another good example of an accessible playground was completed in St. Louis' Tilles Park in 2006. Designed with input from therapists and other health care professionals at St. Louis Children's Hospital, as well as landscape architects at SWT Design and St. Louis County Parks, the playground features a soft surface material to minimize injuries due to falls while allowing easy access for wheelchairs. A ramp system allows wheelchairs and kids who are mobility-impaired to get on and off the structure easily, without awkward turning for wheelchairs. It also gives wheelchair users a chance to get up higher—something they rarely get to experience. The stainless steel slide can be used by kids with cochlear implants, who experience problems on plastic slides.