Feature Article - January 2013
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Let's Play Together!

How Inclusive Playgrounds Benefit Everyone

By Jessica Royer Ocken


Here are some thoughts and ideas from experts around the country:

  • One of the most popular pieces at Leesburg, Virginia's Sycolin Creek Elementary School playground is a huge rocker that can hold up to 20 children, including those in wheelchairs, reports assistant principal Lisa Waldbaum. The preschool-through-5th grade school needed a playground specifically for younger students, and a parent of a child with special needs spearheaded the effort (and additional fundraising) to make it fully inclusive. Soft foam surfacing makes for easy navigation, a shaded area protects observing teachers and parents, as well as kids with light sensitivity, and the playground is long and thin, which means its ramps are not as steep. A smaller rocker for five or six children at a time and sensory areas that include textures, sounds and pieces to manipulate round out the playground's most popular features.

  • Consider more than just the playground, suggested Kaplan and Harris. Benches make parents and caregivers comfortable and ensure a longer stay, as do amenities for service dogs. Be sure restrooms are located nearby and include changing tables for larger children and electrical outlets for those who may need a treatment during their play.

  • Weave in some nature. Taking a stroll through the woods or playing in a creek is something else that may be logistically difficult for someone who uses a wheelchair or walker, so Schulze said she particularly appreciates the elements of nature—an accessible pond and boardwalk, a wetland to search for tadpoles—the city of Westerville, Ohio, added to their inclusive playground. These are also great ways to engage a variety of senses.

  • Think about multi-generational use, as you want this playground to serve and grow with your community for years to come. Go beyond the ADA to design for kids of all abilities and all parts of your community, suggested Flannigan. "This encourages everyone in the community to use the space." You want a play environment that encourages kids to come and stay longer—and want to come back, he added. If they master everything the first time, you've missed your mark.

How to Get Started

Resources and support options, including fundraising tips and grants, abound for those building inclusive playgrounds, but the best place to begin your journey is your own community. Get input from parents, educators, therapists and others who work directly with children and adults with special needs, as they know first-hand what's likely to work best. And don't forget to ask the kids too. Part of KaBOOM!'s development process is having children draw their "dream playgrounds," which have included everything from trampolines to chocolate fountains, Flannigan said.

The community also drives the design for projects Shane's Inspiration is involved with, Harris said. They've heard from parents of children with disabilities, but also from returning veterans who want an opportunity to play with their typically abled children. Shane's Inspiration encourages communities to find local corporate sponsors for the project, to select a theme that will tie the playground to the community, and to get educators involved early to pave the way for a partnership with local schools.

Not only does drawing on the community yield good ideas, but as with any project, the earlier the public is involved, the more ownership and investment they feel. Involving your community in the playground planning educates them about the importance of inclusion and gives them a sense of ownership, according to Robert Carolin, director of leisure services for Ormond Beach, Fla. This can be particularly important for an inclusive playground because of the extra fundraising and effort required. Vice Principal Waldbaum noted that more than 100 volunteers came to help build the walls of her school's inclusive playground, and she said their feedback and active engagement has been essential. "Our fundraising theme was building bridges," she said. "And that's not just bridges between kids and their peers, but between the school and our community."