Feature Article - November 2010
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Play Date

What's New on the Playground?

By Deborah Vence

As an example, Proud noted a story about a parent he met whose child has spina bifida.

"I've never heard such a passionate speech, just the emotion and passion around her statement. She was on the playground where the layout was so poor, and it excluded her child from playing there," Proud said.

"What she said to me was that she had been to a playground where she wanted to bring her family, and found that the ADA swing was indeed wheelchair appropriate, but it was put in the middle of mulch, and [she] wasn't able to push the wheelchair across it. She was so frustrated and so upset that this thing should be happening at all. This was beyond her comprehension," he said.

That's why surfacing also is important when creating a universal playground.

"A truly universal playground doesn't use mulch. Engineered fiber meets ADA requirements. However, I have never been able to push my son's wheelchair across it. Right now, our choices are rubber tiles or specially designed turf. Maybe somebody will come up with a more perfect surfacing," Kaplan said.

Keeping that in mind, park districts and recreational facilities need to consult with parents in the community and find out what they really need out of a playground.

"To make your first step would be to pull parents together who are in your community and say what do you think of this playground? How does it work for you? What would you like to have added? If it doesn't have the right surfacing, you won't get to the universal design," Kaplan suggested. "Interview users, and if you are starting something new, what happens a lot of times is that the designer will meet ADA requirements, but doesn't go beyond ADA. You have to be careful of the design, otherwise you are isolating children."

Kaplan added: "What we have here and what I think is going to be a trend for the future is much more ground-level activity, instead of the traditional play form. We will see more seesaws, more spring riders, more basketball hoops, things that can happen on the ground so everybody can be participating at their own level."

She said playgrounds need to get to the point where children of all abilities are using them.

"We want to see them using it to burn calories, exercise. How is somebody in a wheelchair going to do that? And we want the unstructured play, where the parent can step back and watch the kids interact and learn on their own," she said. "And right now we don't have all of those things in place. I think we will be able to do modifications quickly. Some things you'll see within the next year or so. Some will take much longer."

Furthermore, Kaplan pointed out that the combination of nature and play structures together can be of benefit as well to children with special needs.

"Landscaping, and specifically designed play equipment that fits right into nature, we're really going to start to see the true value of a child interacting in nature in addition to playing on the playground," she said. "Research at U of I [has shown that] if a child with ADHD takes a walk in nature for 15 minutes, he or she is much more focused for the rest of the day."