Feature Article - November 2014
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The Power of Playing Together

Inclusive Playgrounds Benefit Kids & Communities

By Jessica Royer Ocken

Inclusive is a bit of a hot term right now, describing not just playgrounds, but approaches to education, social interaction and even government. And the reason it's likely so hot is because it's rife with benefits. Drawing people in and finding ways for everyone to participate equally together, whether in the classroom, city hall or a neighborhood park, can have a lasting impact on all parties involved.

"It's a new way of thinking," said Abbey Dahlberg, co-chair of the Play 4 All planning committee, which helped create the Play 4 All Playground in Williston, N.D. "There's so much inclusion happening in schools now. That's the way things are going, so it's good to [provide playgrounds that] get kids familiar with each other."

So, for the moment (and because you're reading a recreation magazine), let's focus on playgrounds.

"Universal [inclusive] design is just good design and goes deeper into meeting the needs of all visitors," said Andrea Weber, a project manager with the Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board, which manages the Wabun Play Area, an inclusive playground at Minnehaha Regional Park. Never underestimate the importance of play, not just for kids, but for their families and communities, she explained. "One of the struggles families with disabilities face is fewer places to meet and be part of the community." The playgrounds near them—usually hot spots of mingling and friend-making—may not be welcoming or even usable by their children. (See sidebar for a quick review of the principles of inclusive playground design.)

More simply put, inclusivity is "the right thing to do," said Kyle Cundy, a project manager with Leathers and Associates, a playground design firm based in New York and Florida. "We get letters after a project is finished that say, 'This is the first time I've seen my kid act like a child and play with others.' Parents are overwhelmed with emotion. We encourage every project to go all-inclusive if it's feasible."

About feasibility: While making your next playground fully inclusive will add some costs, it also opens up a world of opportunity for fundraising and community support. "It's easier to fundraise for an all-inclusive park, because it's more appealing and desirable," Cundy said. "We're working on a project now in the Baltimore suburbs—an inclusive playground at Angel Park. They already have more than $700,000 in pledges, and we just designed it this past spring."

Plus, once you have this fabulous new play space up and running? Look out! "I have been a [parks and recreation] director in three states over the span of 12 years, and Valley Park Playground is without a doubt the best playground I have ever seen in my life," reported Eric Lucas, director of Parks & Recreation in Grandview, Mo., a suburb of Kansas City.

Open since July 24, 2014, this new inclusive playground had nearly 24,000 visits in its first 30 days and now is averaging nearly 750 visits per day. Prior to renovation (which included the new playground), this park had been closed for several years and was a frequent site of dumping and illegal activity, so the revamp has changed the entire neighborhood, and the park now draws visitors from all over Missouri and Kansas. "We're seeing firsthand that parks are truly an economic engine for communities," Lucas said.

So, whether your community could use bigger and better opportunities for kids and families of all abilities, a bit of a fundraising and enthusiasm boost for your next park district project, or a way to raise the profile of your community and make it an entertainment destination, perhaps an inclusive playground is in your future. Continue reading to discover even more reasons why.