Feature Article - November 2019
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United in Play

The Latest Playgrounds Are for Everyone

By Dave Ramont


Universal Design

Universal design—the idea of creating spaces appropriate for all populations—continues to make strides in the realm of playgrounds. "I have to say that the fastest-growing and best design characteristic on the playground is simply inclusion," said Roschi. "Inclusive design means creating playgrounds where more children of all abilities can not only access the playground but play side-by-side with their friends and siblings."

He believes more communities have realized that just meeting ADA standards doesn't go far enough, and manufacturers are creating more products that bring all children together. He mentioned an inclusive merry-go round, a "fully accessible merry-go-round that is flush with the surface so that children using mobility devices can get right on with their friends and share in the spinning motion."

"Sensory-rich environments are popular, as it fits the goal of creating inclusive playground designs, and outdoor music is becoming a significant element in those designs," said Roschi, citing a line of outdoor musical instruments including chimes, bells, metallophones and drums. "The instruments invite kids and adults of all ages and abilities to be creative and express themselves both physically and emotionally."

"Universally-designed play spaces bring everyone together and offer equitable play and developmental opportunities for all children," said Lisiecki. "With about 20% of the overall population living with a differing ability, it's important to take everyone—children, parents, grandparents and caregivers—into account when creating community spaces."

As an example, she described inclusive swings and swing seats that allow everyone to swing. "Specially-designed seats offer support and security but allow the user to move and discover their abilities."

Lisiecki also explained how an inclusive spinner with multiple seating positions is a spinning social space designed for users of all shapes, sizes and abilities. "Outward-facing seats provide a high level of independence, while inward facing seats with high backs allow for younger users to stay securely in place." For more advanced riders to challenge their balance and coordination there is a saddle seat. "The idea here is that everyone can be in the same space enjoying the same developmental benefits and developing a common bond."

"Roller slides and tables are unique sensory experiences and are designed for children of all abilities to slide and work on upper-body strength, balance and cooperation," said Lisiecki. She explained that since these are designed with all-metal rollers that prevent the buildup of static electricity, they can be used by everyone—including children with cochlear implants.

Callison points out that there is much more to an inclusive playground than physical accessibility, and people are recognizing this more and more. "We look for ways to address five developmental domains—physical, social/emotional, sensory, cognitive and communication—in both the design of the space and in the selection of the play and recreation amenities."

Making Magic

Upon opening in 2015, Magical Bridge playground in Palo Alto, Calif., was heralded as the nation's most innovative and inclusive playground, catering to the one-in-four of us living with physical and cognitive disabilities, autism, and visual and hearing impairments, as well as the medically fragile and our aging populations.

The space features distinct play zones designed to accommodate everyone, including Retreat Cocoons for those needing a break. There are smooth, seamless pathways; wheelchair access to a two-story playhouse, treehouse and top of a slide mound; fully accessible equipment including bucket swings, spinning features, wide slides, a sway boat and merry-go-round; a 24-string laser harp; play zone descriptions featuring braille; and interactive artwork. Kindness Ambassadors are on hand, welcoming more than 25,000 visitors monthly.

In 2016, the nonprofit Magical Bridge Foundation was founded by CEO Olenka Villarreal and Executive Director Jill Asher to bring innovative and inclusive playgrounds to other communities and schools. "The excitement of Magical Bridge playgrounds continues to excite city officials, residents, city councils and parks and recreation departments," said Asher, explaining that several new projects are currently underway in northern California.

Asher believes they're at the forefront of an exciting movement, but knows there's still a long way to go. "Most universally-designed playgrounds do not really meet the needs of absolutely everyone in the community." However, she said they've been flooded with calls from around the globe asking for advice and guidance. "Where we put our roots down, we've seen a tremendous groundswell of interest. With each community we go into, we see the power of inclusion extend to other projects."

It's also common for venues to reach out that just want to retrofit their existing space, and Asher said they've partnered with a play equipment manufacturer to create lower price point solutions for pocket playgrounds and schoolyards. They've even patented a slide attachment that's currently in use, to be distributed by their global partner. "This will allow someone to scoot over and wait with dignity while their mobility device is brought to them."

When it comes to designing more universally-friendly play spaces, Asher shared a few general considerations: "create zones, for predictability; install equipment that encourages collaboration; put fencing around the playground; add poured-in-place surfacing, artificial turf or concrete paths; build playgrounds that are not age-specific, but welcoming for everyone at every stage of life."