Supplement Feature - April 2011
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Common Grounds

Inclusive Play on the Upswing

By Wynn St. Clair

"Just like no two children are alike, no two butterflies are alike either," Page said.

The community reaction was overwhelming. The project raised more than $600,000, with some sculptures sold at auction and others becoming an integral part of the Lakeland landscape. The project also led to a partnership with Home Depot, which donated a substantial part of the playground's landscaping.

"The community became really involved, and they joined us in our fundraising efforts," Page said. "After more than two years of fundraising, there was heightened awareness about what an inclusive play area is."

With butterflies becoming an indelible part of the playground's image, park officials opted to incorporate the theme into the park itself. The park—named Common Ground—is designed like a butterfly, with activity areas grouped into lobes like those on a butterfly wing. The lobes have climbing equipment, swings, a quiet story-time area, a music area and a section for adventure play. The butterfly's spine, or the body, is a trellis with benches for caregivers.

The design breaks from tradition by refusing to segregate the park into age groups. Instead, it's split into easy, intermediate and advanced play areas. "That way an 18-year-old with Down's Syndrome, who knows they're 18 and wants to do things like other 18-year-olds, will feel included," Page said.

The park also was designed to minimize the use of transfer platforms where children are lifted out of their wheelchairs and use ramps instead. Progressive parks are moving away from such platforms because they put children in weakened positions and also draw attention to the disabilities.

There is a reading room area complete with colorful stools and a great big bunch of benches where teachers can come and read to their students. Music is piped throughout the entire park in speakers hidden in rocks and frog sculptures. It's also stimulating for the visually impaired as the landscaping includes plants with various textures and smells.

"It is designed around social play, but it was also very important for us to recognize that not all kids can handle the stimulation of social play, like children who might be on the autism spectrum," Page said.

"We have an area where these kids can meander and go to be alone while still being able to observe what's going on," she added.

When it opened two years ago, CommonGround became the sixth inclusive playground in Florida and the first one to be open to the public. Park officials always knew their project was different, but they didn't know how unique it was until the city's risk management representatives asked them to obtain the policies and operations at other universal parks and they couldn't find any community with a similar approach.